Taboos of Leadership, by Anthony Smith (Hardcover, 2007)|
(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you
want a hardcopy)
Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.
Before I say what I like about this book, I want to point
out three flaws. The first is the title/contents mismatch. The other two
flaws are errors of fact.
The title of this book doesn't match its contents. The book
is actually about the taboos of CEOs, not about the taboos of
leadership. Not all leaders are CEOs and not all CEOs are leaders. One
taboo the author didn't mention was the dearth of real leadership among the senior executive
Two patently false claims made in this
book are the product of the propaganda put out in an effort to put a
positive spin on what is, when you look at it objectively, theft.
The author claims that "leaders" (CEOs) are entitled to
the pay they receive. But the outlandish compensation packages given to American CEOs have no correlation to performance.
It should also matter that CEOs in other
countries do not haul in the booty in any way close to this. Rather than
multimillion dollar salaries and tons of perks, the CEOs in other
countries typically make a wage that is not a huge jump from the Vice
The superstar salaries are not justified, despite the
author's claims, and are a fairly recent problem. CEOs get these
salaries because of incestuous boards, not because it's "hard to attract
talent." What kind of talent does it take to order layoffs or do
boneheaded things that drop the company's stock price by 95% in one
year? People who perform such "services" get paid millions for their
"talent." Think of Tom Rogers (destroyed Primedia) or Chainsaw Al
(eviscerated Sunbeam), just for starters.
The method of determining CEO
compensation is not what the author posits. The actual method is a wink and nod
understanding of "you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours"
among people who serve on each other's boards. It has nothing whatsoever
to do with "attracting and keeping talent." It should also be
noted that the annual payment for attending one catered board meeting
for a day is often twice what a skilled production worker makes in an
entire year. Serve on 10 boards, and you really rake it in. No wonder
your friends are eager to "serve" on your board and rubber stamp your
breathtaking compensation package.
The second false claim is that "leaders" (CEOs)
put in 18 hour days. According to the Sleep
Institute, a person who is 20% sleep-deprived has the mental acuity of a
person who is drunk. If a CEO works 18 hours a day and we assume 2
additional hours for transportation, meals, and personal hygiene (that
isn't much for doing those things), that leaves four hours for sleep
(outside of meetings).
Yet, the Sleep Institute has found that nearly everyone needs 8 hours of
sleep. So just how drunk is a CEO at this claimed level of 50% sleep
deprivation? Should we pay such a mentally impaired person at all? Why
not just bring in a wino off the street and save the expense of a huge
Below this review, I explain one way the 18 hours get tallied up--it's food for thought.
Smith writes in a conversational manner that makes the
book easy to read and understand. This is unusual in an arena dominated
by word misuse (example, using "impacted" to mean "affected" when the
actual meaning has more to do with needing an emergency enema), stupid
expressions (example, "at the end of the day"), meaningless words
(example, "empowerment"), and various methods of speaking without saying
anything. Smith might say the reason for the typically poor
communication efforts have more to do with stepping around certain
taboos than with any deficiency in ability. And he could point to the
high verbal scores on the typical CEO's SAT records to back that
I'm not going to list the taboos--that would be too
much like telling the plot of a movie. But I will talk about how Smith
presents the taboos. The book contains a list of ten topics executives
just don't talk about, except within their own circles and often not
even then. Except as noted earlier, Smith provides keen insight into
what lies behind the silence.
The author does not suggest that the same people
who award each other outlandish pay packages while trotting out
unethical justifications for that practice might actually want to serve
interests other than their own. They do serve their own interests, but
that's not necessarily evil. Except as noted earlier, this isn't a zero
sum game. Generally, what's good for the executive is good for the
company--as with any other employee. There are limits.
Some taboos arise because there's a higher
standard of behavior as you climb the corporate ladder. For example,
it's just bad form for a senior executive to publicly gripe about
his/her company (griping differs from admitting a mistake). No matter
how dismal things look or how lousy that person feels, honest expression
could undermine everything else that person does. Smith doesn't touch on
this particular point directly, but it is one of the conclusions you
reach while reading the book.
People who work "in the trenches" like to see
their executives as "straight shooters" rather than political animals.
Ironically, this is one reason for the jargon, clichés, and other obfuscation
mentioned earlier. To rise to the top, an executive has to be a tough
political player while not appearing to be one. This may seem wrong, but that's not the case. This particular skill
set is vital to being an effective senior executive, for reasons that
have very much to do with defending the business from predators. A
business, like it or not, has to compete in a tough political
environment. It needs senior executives who can properly handle the
threats that can damage or destroy the enterprise. Yet, as Smith discusses, it's taboo to talk about playing
Imagine yourself in the following situation. You're a VP in a
mid-size corporation. The Chief of Operations slot is open, and you are
highly qualified for the position. You get called into a meeting of the
- The first executive says, "You are too frank with people. You
tell them what's happening instead of what they should hear."
- The second executive says, "You aren't quite charismatic enough
for this position."
- The third executive says, "I want a
personal friend of mine to have this job."
- The fourth executive says, "You took a vacation last year, and I
couldn't reach you for over five hours. I just don't think you have
the level of personal commitment we are looking for."
Do these things sound outrageous? That's what Smith is talking about
in this book. Nobody would dare say such things. But, these are exactly
the kinds of things CEOs would say if the price for saying them weren't
so steep. They aren't being cowards--they are simply observing taboos.
- The first executive is saying you aren't politically astute
enough. You need to calm the waters, not stir them up.
- The second executive knows charisma is an unwritten part of
every senior leader's job description. You have to be able to charm
key customers, key legislators, and others who can help or hurt your
company. And there's that little matter of getting the support of
your reports, rather than forcing them to second-guess you out of a
lack of confidence in you.
- The third executive feels more comfortable with a person he
knows well. This is one reason a new CEO tends to purge the ranks
and hire people from his/her past, rather than adapt to the people
who are already there.
- The fourth executive is pushing the C-level culture of not
having a life. There's an inordinately high value placed on face
time and availability.
It might be nice to know that you aren't charismatic enough for that
promotion, but only a very trusting mentor will ever tell you that. Some
other "reason" for being passed over will be offered instead.
Manufacturing reasons that allow everyone to save face is one of those
political skills just mentioned. No company wants to a perfectly
competent department manager to get mad and quit, just because that
person doesn't have the charisma, political savvy, or other taboo trait
for the next level up. If senior executives ignored the taboo status of
this (or any of the ten taboos Smith discusses), the company would not
be able to retain talent.
Smith offers a valuable perspective on several
aspects of such things as work-life balance. For
anyone groveling long hours under the delusion you will be
sufficiently rewarded for sacrificing your youth while the CEO of
your company rakes in 8 figures at the same time your company stock
plummets, this book may be life-changing. You'll also learn what it
takes for a person to rise to a job in which he makes more while sitting on the toilet than you do actually
working. And you may decide you don't want to endure that just to play
the C-suite lottery.
This book is an interesting read, if you'd like some insight into the
worldview of the upper 1% of wage earners in America. Very few people
rise to those positions without paying very heavy dues. That experience
shapes how they look at life, and I think understanding that view as
presented by Smith is enlightening.
This book is a worthwhile read if you are climbing anywhere on the
corporate ladder. The insight Smith provides will help you re-evaluate
your work-life balance, or lack thereof, as well as other aspects of
your climb. Getting into the lofty C-level ranks is an all-consuming
experience. Smith illustrates this in several different ways, thus doing
a major service to any reader who has delusions of rising to the top on
a mere 60 hour work week. CEOs may not work the 18 hour days they claim
to work, but they generally neglect all else in their lives for their
jobs. This fact enters heavily into much of the thinking behind this
Tallying up 18 hours
Here's one way to tally up 18 hours. Joe
CEO gets up at 0230 to take a leak (and, as usual, leave the toilet seat
up). While he's there, he grabs his Blackberry and sends out a few "I am slaving away
while you sleep" e-mails to selected employees. These are e-mails
he wrote and saved earlier, just for this purpose. It takes only a
second to send them, which is why the Blackberry is in the bathroom next
to his electric shaver.
After getting up much later than the engineers who are
designing his company's products, he heads to the office.
From his mansion in the most prime of prime locations, it's not a long
trip. Glancing at his watch, he sees he'll arrive at 0730 and be able to claim
having worked 5 hours already.
He immediately heads into a morning staff meeting,
apologizing for being late but "I was on the phone with customers since
shortly after two this morning." Since the Blackberry is a phone and one
of those e-mails did go to a customer, he's not actually lying....
At around 0900, he goes to the gym to get in a game of handball
with another CEO his company does business with. This is called
"personally visiting customers." The other CEO tells his people he is
"personally beating suppliers into concessions, mano a mano."
(Alternatively, he may take off to head back to the mansion for a nap or
just run a personal errand).
back to the office in time to talk to a few folks before heading off to
a "business lunch." If it's with employees or other
execs, it involves spewing clichés he
heard at a recent conference, talking about the latest business book,
and putting an unjustifiably
expensive meal on the company tab. If it's with key clientele, it
involves talking about golf, complaining about taxes, and listening to
the customer's problems before putting an unjustifiably expensive meal
on the company tab.
Back at the office around 1400, he
heads into the first of a series of useless meetings. Going into one
rather lengthy PowerPoint show, he sets his Blackberry to "vibrate" and
has it wake him up as the windbag at the front of the room starts to
wrap things up. Meetings drag on
and on and on until about 1730. Now we're at an alleged 15 hour day. So
far, an hour of actual work put in.
Now it's time to make a "terror
tour" to see who is still putting in face time. As he walks past each
worker, there's a barely audible sigh of relief, and minutes later it
looks like a lemming convention at the elevator. This purportedly gets
productivity out of the senior execs. Next, it's off to dinner with a client or
representatives from a large account. This elaborate affair stretches
out until gosh, look--it's an 18 hour day!
Now, not every CEO behaves this way and those who do
behave this way also have some long days full of hard work. But anyone
claiming to be working 18 hour days and expecting to get sympathy for
his bad judgment or rank dishonesty (has to be one or the other) will
not get it from me.