As Covid rages across the country and the death toll mounts — much of our political leadership and often with business leadership there is an obsession with looking good. The official death toll has just crossed 3,00,000 but internal medical experts and often officials, speaking of course on condition of anonymity, acknowledge that the real number could be from three to ten times that number. A recent Economist modelling estimated that the real number was at least a million dead!
This is just one of the symptoms when leaders fall prey to obsessing over whether they are looking good versus whether they are actually doing good. What are the other symptoms and consequences of this style of leadership?
Priorities go berserk
When leaders obsess about looking good, automatically their priorities become lopsided. They focus on goals, on projects, on initiatives that enhance their image, balloon their achievements, and create what could only be called ‘delusions of grandeur.’ We see an example of this in the Vista project where over ₹20,000 crores have been allocated to a vanity project right in the middle of possibly the worst crisis India has experienced in recent times. When the sole focus should be vaccination and caring for the infected, time, money and resources serve as the brutal indicators of where priorities really lie.
Enron had four fancy sounding values chiselled in marble in their lobby — integrity, communication, respect and excellence. Again, the organisation focused on what could be seen, what would impress, rather than living those values in the way they conducted their business. As former Enron CFO Andy Fastow acknowledged in a Harvard Business Review article “I knew it was wrong…but I didn't think it was illegal….The question I should have asked is not what is the rule, but what is the principle.”
This can be seen in the way such a leader conducts his review meetings — is more time spent in reviewing execution or on pulling up the team for not communicating enough the so-called achievements? Admiral Mike Mullen a former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff would urge leaders to focus on the right thing, “We need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate.”
Tracking wrong metrics
Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy in their book Execution , defined it as ‘a systematic way of exposing reality and acting on it.’ Leaders focused on looking good ignore this cardinal rule. They create and track metrics that make them look good — they ignore reality. This inevitably creates poor and sometimes disastrous execution. In India, even while the death count piles up, defenders of the Government spout statistics like ‘fastest to 100 million’ helpfully adding that against India taking 85 days, the US took 89 days and China took 102 days. But with a population like ours that metric is rubbish.
In terms of percentages — only 11 per cent of India’s population have received at least one dose- a colossal execution failure for the country that claimed to be the world’s vaccine-saviour. Daily vaccinations hover below three million, compared to China doing 13 million a day. These kinds of metrics are conveniently ignored. Under-reporting is rampant. In Gujarat, local media tracked 689 bodies that were cremated or buried under Covid-19 protocols in one day in mid-April. The same day the government’s tally read 78.
This fudging and tracking of the wrong metrics can lull people into a sense of success when a disaster is looming around the corner. CEOs often do the same thing. When it’s a clear that a tough year is going to make the books look bad, there’s a sudden spurt of one-time asset sales or similar one-time income to dress up the numbers. But as the saying goes “even when you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig.” A bad P&L is postponed but not prevented. Very few of the business scams in India could really have gone undetected if leaders, auditors, employees, partners, customers, and investors bothered to interrogate the right metrics. As I often urged our teams in the way they used metrics — “We should never use metrics as a drunk uses a lamppost — for support rather than illumination.”
When leaders push the ‘looking good’ agenda this confuses their teams. They are unsure whether to get cracking on the things that matter or to focus onthe ‘looking good’ story. The Indian High Commissioner to Australia felt compelled to dedicate time and effort to rebut an article that appeared in The Australian that was critical of the Indian Government’s handling of the Covid pandemic. He defended the “universally acclaimed approach taken by the Government of India to fight against the …. pandemic.” Again, notice the choice of words — it wasn’t ‘universally effective’ — it was ‘universally acclaimed’ — that’s the gold medal that the team runs after when they have a ‘looking-good’ driven leader.
Teams focus on what is visible, what will get noticed and ignore what may be of much more importance, because it’s either not seen or has no PR value. A shiny good-looking exterior covers a rotten core.
As Instagram grew bigger and cooler, Facebook began to act “ like the big sister that wants to dress you up for the party but does not want you to be prettier than she is,” as an Instagram executive put it. Because teams are focused on looking good, they may even undercut another team simply to prevent them from looking good. We hear and see cases where teams subtly sabotage each other, instead of supporting each other for the good of the overall organisation or the customer. This is especially true when leaders create a hyper-competitive ‘you-eat-what-you-kill’ culture.
A large conglomerate once needed its Board to step in, when it was discovered that more than three of its group companies were competing for the same large client project- undercutting and undermining each other. What the Central Government has done by abdicating part of the vaccine acquisition process to the States at differing prices has created a dysfunctional process by which states will compete to corner the most doses and ultimately the sick will suffer in the middle of all the gamesmanship.
The Economist obituary for Bernie Madoff highlights how the looking-good mantra swayed thousands of intelligent investors. Spellbound by appearances of success, investors did not scrutinise as they normally would have. It took the 2008 financial crisis for the fraud to eventually be exposed. The judge called out Madoff’s feigned sorrow during his trial as being more for the $170 billion in assets that were forfeited than for regret at the harm he caused: the $7 million Manhattan penthouse, the power boats, the private jet.
“The accused himself remarked that the fraud had gone on and on because he could not accept the fact that for once in his life he had failed. In other words, he could bear to tell his clients that he was not a magician. So, he ruined them instead.” That is the path the looking-good leaders tread — they bask in the fake success for a while, but eventually fall victim to their own hubris.