Until last week Mark Hurd was the hyper-successful CEO of Hewlett Packard. He was brought in five years ago to turn “the company around but also to set a more professional tone in the executive suite.” Although he implemented some extremely painful cost-cutting measures and aggressively acquired other companies, he was highly regarded and about to sign a new contract worth $100 million.

But all that is history now because last week HP let him go after he admitted that he “did not live up to the standards and principles of trust, respect and integrity that I have espoused at HP…” Which is corporate-speak for saying that he messed up with sex and money. The usual.

At the Harvard Business Review, Ron Ashkenaz asks “Why?” and comes up with two answers which show the link between deference and deviance.

1. Hurd started believing his own press clippings.

Being a senior executive — and especially a CEO — is a heady thing. People defer to you and treat you like corporate royalty. You have an entourage that takes care of mundane tasks, writers that prepare your speeches and presentations, and a PR department that shapes your internal and external image. In the midst of this “heroic executive” culture, it’s easy to unconsciously think that you can do whatever you want to do, particularly in seemingly minor or personal matters.

Research at Stanford and Berkeley has shown that power over others often results in behavioral disinhibition. “People in charge are less likely to follow the rules and social conventions that others accept as their lot, and are more likely to pursue their own goals without thinking too much about the possible downsides or consequences for others.” As Bill Clinton admitted to Dan Rather in a post Monica Lewinsky interview: “I think I did something for the worst possible reason — just because I could.”

2. Hurd lacked honest feedback.

It’s not that CEOs, senior executives, and many managers have no one to talk to — many have no one to talk back to them. At the same time, many senior executives have no one to share doubts and underlying anxieties. They don’t want to appear weak or uncertain with their own people, which might, in their minds, undermine their authority or leadership. So in the absence of intellectual pushback and emotional empathy, senior people either lose perspective on what’s appropriate, or find external relationships that fulfill their needs but may not be appropriate.

Ashkenaz forcefully concludes that all of us need to tone down the excessive deference that creates the “heroic executive” culture. Instead he wants more of us to heroically challenge our bosses and peers when necessary.

And he wants managers “to be more open to admitting mistakes and uncertainty, and encouraging real give-and-take with subordinates and colleagues.” And, if you can’t find someone to do this in your own organization, get an outsider “who is not cowed by your status and can be a confidential listener and effective devil’s advocate.”

And what’s that got to do with pastors and churches?

Well, re-read this post substituting church for organization and Pastor for Executive/Manager.

Look familiar now?


God’s Technology DVD: Training our children to use digital technology for God’s glory.