November 26, 2009

After the Crisis: Restoring Trust in U.S. Leaders

 Originally posted on on Tuesday, November 24, 2009.

The stock market seems well on its way to recovering from the financial crisis, but a deep scar from the recession remains. Americans lack confidence in the nation’s leadership to address the challenges we currently face.

The Harvard Center for Public Leadership’s  reveals that 69% of Americans think we have a leadership crisis in the country. Another 67% believe that “unless we get better leaders, the United States will decline as a nation.”

At the bottom of the index’s ranking of confidence in leadership are Wall Street leaders, closely followed by news media, Congressional, and business leaders. It is tempting for leaders to view these dismal results as a public relations issue emanating from the economic downturn. But this is not a PR problem: It’s a leadership problem.

We opened this decade with a wave of appalling leadership failures. Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling of Enron, Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom, Joseph Nacchio of Qwest, and Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco blatantly disregarded the ethical and legal responsibilities entrusted to them by their shareholders.


We are closing the decade with another wave of leadership failures. Dick Fuld of Lehman, Alan Schwartz of Bear Stearns, Angelo Mozillo of Countrywide Financial, and Chuck Prince of Citigroup (C) sacrificed financial prudence for the possibility of extraordinary short-term gains. Their decisions obliterated billions of dollars of economic wealth and almost destroyed the nation’s financial system.

This crisis won’t be over until a new generation of leaders emerges that understands that long-term institutional stewardship and maintaining public trust are the two imperatives of 21st century leadership.

Far too many leaders fell into the trap of believing that the purpose of business is to maximize shareholder value and reap personal rewards, rather than serve customers and the society they operate in. In my experience, those that focus primarily on maximizing shareholder value—usually with a short-term focus—are more likely to wind up destroying the value they create.

A recent study of the Standard & Poor’s index of 700 international stocks from 1998 to 2009 shows that only 3 of the top 15 winners are U.S. companies—Apple (AAPL), Amazon (AMZN), and Oracle (ORCL)—all headed by leaders with long-term focus. The 5 worst U.S. stocks were AIG, Eastman Kodak (EK), Citigroup, Ford (F), and Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY). All had leaders with a short-term focus. This list excludes GM, K-Mart, Enron, WorldCom, and Lehman because they declared bankruptcy.


Long-term leaders recognize that they cannot rely upon cost-cutting, acquisitions, and other short-term moves to create sustainable value. By focusing clearly on long-term missions, values, and strategies, they earn and keep the trust of their customers, employees, and the society they serve.

The key to creating sustainable shareholder value is to provide superior value to your customers. Such companies as Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), Target (TGT), Google (GOOG), Medtronic (MDT) (where I served as CEO from 1991 to 2001), and Wells Fargo (WFC) focus on their mission and values, which is what motivates their employees. When a company does these things well, revenues and profits expand and sustainable shareholder value follows.

A number of emerging progressive corporate leaders recognize the need for long-term focus to create sustainable value. For example, IBM’s (IBM) Sam Palmisano embarked upon a seven-year “leading by values” initiative to reposition the firm globally, emphasizing its service businesses. Indra Nooyi committed PepsiCo (PEP) to a long-term focus on expanding healthy food and beverage offerings. Dan Vasella of Novartis (NVS) invested heavily in drug and vaccine research to prevent and treat intractable diseases. John Chambers is making acquisitions during the downturn to prepare Cisco (CSCO) to lead a new productivity expansion. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos keeps introducing product innovations such as the Kindle—even though they take five to seven years to pay off.

In an earlier era, Walter Wriston of Citigroup and John Whitehead of Goldman Sachs (GS) (a company on whose board I currently serve) capably steered the financial markets with honesty, intelligence, and dignity. While many firms were failing in 2008, three Wall Street leaders emerged. J.P. Morgan Chase’s (JPM) Jamie Dimon created a culture of candor, enabling his bank to successfully navigate the financial crisis. Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein built effective risk management into the bank’s DNA. John Stumpf emphasized Wells Fargo’s core strengths and focused on commercial banking, using the crisis to strengthen its franchise.

The path to restoring the public’s confidence and trust in business leaders is clear. We need leaders who are committed to sustainable growth over short-term gains and who serve society by creating long-term value.