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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    What a fallen CEO can tell us about leadership

    Leadership is one of the toughest standards we ask a select few in our society to espouse and embrace. The lore of American history is ripe with emboldened stories of the few leading the many, the courage to rise above the consensus, and the privilege and responsibility of leadership. This Sunday school perspective (prescription) on leadership, popularized through our triumphant rants and cause/effect success stories, undoubtedly helps to shepherd and mold the next generation of leaders.

    However, I question where the popular wisdom and consensus behind the abstract idea of American style leadership has led us. At a more immediate level, how do we even gauge the quality and foresight of leadership here at the UA? I offer a perplexing case in point, Rick Wagoner.

    This past Friday, Wagoner, the former CEO of ailing auto manufacturer General Motors, was forced to resign after eight years at the helm. Although Wagoner, who was well loved by many in the state of Michigan and at GM, may have honestly believed he was leading the company toward a brighter future, the facts speak otherwise.

    Since early 2000, when he was promoted from within GM, GM’s stock has tumbled from almost $70 a share to a mere $2 and the company is on the verge of bankruptcy. The man quite literally drove the GM fleet of undesirable cars along with the company into the ground. And yet, it took the government, and specifically the demands of the newly created auto-recovery task force to force a change of leadership.

    Wagoner was not just a supposed leader, but also the leader accountable to the shareholders and now the taxpayers of this country to make GM profitable. It is remarkable how he managed to “”lead”” the company for so long despite the fact that the share price, indicative of how investors view the worth of the company, was in decay long before the “”Great Recession.”” How is it that Wagoner managed to remain CEO of one of the hallmark companies of American capitalism for so long with little revolt or dissension from within GM?

    Leadership today is a concept too blithely spoken of, too commodified in popular culture as a teachable skill, and simply given away too easily. Rick Wagoner exuded confidence, rallied the company employees behind him, and filled his bureaucratic role as company spokesman almost too well. He characterized the ideal, an HBS degree-toting executive loyal to the company, and ultimately, our imagination of his effectiveness blinded us to the reality behind the company. His cronyism inspired loyalty beyond the scope of the manufacturing plant and to the very heart of governance. Jennifer M. Granholm, Governor of Michigan, even went to great lengths defending Mr. Wagoner as an auto-industry “”martyr.””

    Is leadership really just the ability to build consensus among one’s peers, to inspire confidence in one’s own abilities and to garner sympathetic capital when the bell finally does toll? For the 21st century, leadership should be much more than authority, hierarchy, and marketing. With the current fiscal crisis in the state of Arizona hitting home via a reduced budget for the UA, our leaders are now, more than ever, under the spotlight. Every leader from President Shelton to the various deans must do more than simply placate popular criticism, plan budgets and attract donors.

    Leaders must not only be confident and assertive, but they must be analytical, objective, and willing to make unpopular decisions that may get them fired. Leadership must be about making the right decisions, not simply establishing cronyism and tenure. Rick Wagoner was seen as “”successful”” because he wasn’t fired sooner; however, his vision killed the electric car and now has placed thousands of Americans in peril of losing their jobs. Leadership should stir controversy and muddy the waters.

    This past Monday, President Obama commented on the forced outing of the GM CEO to be “”not meant as a condemnation of Mr. Wagoner, who has devoted his life to this company; rather, it’s a recognition that it will take a new vision and new direction to create the GM of the future.”” I’m not advocating for heads to roll, but rather am hopeful of a new vision for the University of Arizona borne from the reality of a hurting economy. The leadership and vision promulgated at this moment is what will make the UA a great place for future students and continue to attract top academic talent.

    If the leaders at the university are flipping through any guidance as of late, I believe Faye Wattleton may provide some guidance. As anti-Rick Wagoner as this may sound, she believed that “”whoever is providing leadership needs to be as fresh and thoughtful and reflective as possible to make the very best fight.””

    -ÿPaul Cervantes is an accounting and business economics senior. He can be reached at

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