The scientist sat in the laboratory, talking with the Venerable Gentleman. The one who, more than thirty years prior, had begun to scratch a living off the bare lava rock of the western side of Hawaii Island. Who had led the company he built on that rock through presidential impeachments and contracts with (or on) America, through dot com bubbles and imagined missile attacks and real airliner attacks and what was then thought of as a ‘great’ recession. Whose firm had survived and profited in a space where so many others, including the former owners of the laboratory in which they were now sitting, had left only dust and debt. Whose people would walk through walls on his behalf.
Who, a year previously, had handed the chief executive duties to another and planned to retire to the ‘science ideas’ role that had gotten him started on this long road in the first place.
The scientist and the Venerable Gentleman had been walking through that laboratory, talking about some of the successful experiments that had been conducted there and the new ones that were underway, all of which were to be reported to the Board of Directors, whose annual meeting was underway in the conference room two buildings over. Their tour completed, they reached the scientist’s office, a narrow alcove in the southeast corner of the lab. The two entered and sat down. The scientist closed the door. And when they were settled, he asked a question.
“Do you think the Board will be asking for the CEO’s resignation this week?”
Dejection registered all over the Venerable Gentleman’s face and body. “No. The Board seems very happy with him.”
The scientist found it hard to believe that the Board was happy with the precipitous collapse in sales that had occurred over the previous quarter, in a booming economy. But the scientist had also had first-hand experience with the iron grip that the CEO claimed on the flow of information to the Board. Like, in a previous Board meeting, when the scientist incautiously reported the facts about a particular process, as he then understood them, and was in short order informed, through a third party, how upset the CEO had been about that report, which the CEO hadn’t bothered to ask about or include in his own accounts, and ‘don’t do it again’. The person who made the report to the scientist had been, shortly thereafter, sacked and replaced.
Once, at a one-on-one meeting, the scientist had confessed to the CEO that he was having a hard time ‘getting a read’ on his fearless leader. “You’re not supposed to”, the answer came back. “Thank you, that helps”, the scientist had responded, apparently baffling the boss. On another occasion, the scientist remarked in passing that he didn’t hear from his CEO very much. “You may take that as a good thing”, came the rejoinder. Seeing, by that time, how the guy in charge was hounding those of his subordinates to whom he did talk, the scientist declared victory and went about his business.
All this had induced the scientist to start reading about workplace, employee, and leadership practices that modern human-resources theory and practice had identified as toxic. What he discovered did his anxiety levels, or his blood pressure, no favors. Especially in the context of that sales collapse. He proceeded to recount his findings to the Venerable Gentleman, with special reference to the culture of fear that had developed in a workplace whose members were accustomed to walking through walls for their founder.
Such as a meeting in which a claim for striking productivity gains, since verified, was made, and met with the response “Don’t tell the CEO!” Or those members of leadership who had begun to emulate the CEO’s modus operendi – or fought against it, to their cost.
Such as the executive who was reamed out for even suggesting that he might be late to the airport on a particular occasion, because the CEO was the CEO of a profitable company (but see ‘precipitous sales drop’, supra) and deserved to be chauffeured from place to place. That executive, the CEO’s own hire, had since asked for a leave of absence. And several of his team, including the comptroller and chief accountant, had resigned outright, or been sacked.
The scientist’s report was short, because the Venerable Gentleman had been party to many of the events and needed only brief reminders, hardly more than a list. He listened with his trademark considerate attention, then made a comment or two on his own observations, and finished with “I will speak up.”
This was late on a Thursday, near the end of the scheduled annual meeting. Three days and a series of Board-conducted exit interviews later, the Board of Directors had the CEO’s resignation in hand. And the Venerable Gentleman was handed back the reins of the company.
In the ensuing weeks, it became clear just how close to collapse the company had come. Patiently and gradually, the Venerable Gentleman returned the company he founded to health, nurturing a generation of leaders who had new resolve to listen, because they had all experienced what it was like to not be listened to. And who are now prospering by listening.
Sic semper tyrannis.