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Principle-Centered Leadership Falls Well Short of Claims
on February 1, 2003
For the most part American businesses have traditionally ignored the fact that their workplaces are small societies where employees have many of the same social and political concerns and needs as in the broader society. Renowned management guru, Stephen Covey, offers a "principle-centered leadership" (PCL) paradigm for businesses that supposedly rests on time-tested social norms and values.
The maintenance of order and stability is of primary importance in any society. The smooth operation of virtually all American businesses is achieved through the exercise of the unilateral authority and power of a management hierarchy that views employees as commodities or economic units, not social actors. In such firms, social interaction is limited to financial exchanges or to some form of coercion. In the "human relations paradigm," authority may be somewhat more benevolent, recognizing or manipulating emotional needs, but is not weakened. In the "human relations paradigm," the creativity and talent of employees are better utilized, though still in a utilitarian sense. In all of these paradigms, employees are only a means to the ends of the company. Their initiative is often not appreciated, if not prohibited. In other words, employees are not regarded as social and political equals in typical companies.
So what is wrong with this state of affairs? These managerial outlooks have generally worked for American businesses. But according to the author the intense competition of an infinitely more complex and dynamic economic landscape requires firms to empower and use all of the talents of their employees. He suggests that a new principle-centered leadership paradigm is needed that focuses on the social and political "principles" of "fairness, equity, justice, integrity, honesty, and trust." It is supposedly a paradigm that extends full citizenship within a firm to all employees.
What are some of the characteristics of a firm operating under the aegis of a PCL paradigm? The empowered employee, as the base of the company, is trustworthy, which is to say that he or she is competent and possesses the character traits of integrity and maturity. Such individual trustworthiness raises trusting relationships among all members of the firm to the level as being the basis of the firm's success. Trust also facilitates highly effective communications throughout the company. The company is governed according to win-win performance agreements with negotiated accountability and consequences stipulations. With such agreements in place, explicit managerial control is replaced by self-supervision. The author maintains that companies that have adopted PCL are no longer autocratic, but have created a form of democracy.
But how does a PCL paradigm come to exist within an organization? And is it democratic? Well, as it turns out, the establishment of a PCL organization is very much top-down driven. It is for wise, top-level leaders to transform their organizations by "communicating vision, clarifying purposes," and establishing an overriding, governing mission. A mission statement is used to "heighten" the sense of contribution of employees. The author devotes considerable space to suggesting behavior to increase an executive's honor and power with others or to achieve influence. The focus on top leaders is continued with a repackaging of the author's "Seven Habits of Effective People," and an outline of observable characteristics of principle-centered leaders. It is clear that the PCL paradigm seems to be based on charismatic leadership, which usually relies on appeals to emotion and not careful deliberation or extensive participation.
In virtually any democracy, the rights of citizens to secure equal participation and due process is based on legislation or a constitution that concretely defines those rights and stipulates the manner to achieve those rights. The health of a democracy is never left to the good intentions of leaders. Yet that is exactly what the author suggests, regarding a twelve-word mission statement as a constitution, "a framework for governing." The fact that a mission statement is consented to, in some sense, does not give it legitimacy as a constitution. The author makes the classic business claim that formal rules and regulations that ensure that employees can obtain equal voice and impartial adjudication of disputes are impediments to a principle-focused firm. For the author, security is an internal attitude and is not based on a bundle of rights found in a real constitution. The author's definitive statement concerning democracy within firms is that employees interested in politics (who exercises power within the firm) need to shape up (abandon their quest for formal rights) or ship out (leave or be fired without formal due process).
The author bases much of his concept of principle-centered leadership on his contention that principles of human interaction are "self-evident, objective, and external," much like natural processes. That is profoundly incorrect. Equity, fairness, and justice are all contentious issues that are often subjected to vigorous debate among all parties. The all-wise leader does not have a hold on the definition of those ideals.
Like most books of this genre, this author makes virtually no reference to other authorities or scholars in such fields as sociology, political science, or psychology. The reader is left to wonder about the bases of the author's forays into topics of motivation, social and political theory, and organizational behavior. For example, the author acknowledges that systems and environments greatly influence us, yet his answer to the problem of establishing quality is to create principle-oriented persons who simply overcome organizational impediments to quality. That is questionable sociology.
PCL adopts the façade of employee empowerment, but in reality it is far more a paradigm in motivation. The goal in PCL is to subtly convince employees that the firm is being run in a benevolent, equitable manner by all-knowing, high-minded leaders towards lofty goals. Conflicts are downplayed as insignificant in comparison with the widespread, unmitigated devotion to a transcendent mission.
This book does not make its case for PCL. It is at best a vague concept with little grounding in social science and at worst simply another form of managerial manipulation. Undoubtedly, the patina of empowerment will persuade some.