Brandt On Leadership -- Clowning Around

Dec. 21, 2004
Bozo's legacy is apparent in the executive suite.

In case you missed it, Bozo the Clown -- he of the bulbous red nose and winged red hair -- officially retired last week after 9,500 shows and 40 years. Once a fixture in 180 different television markets, Bozo's broadcast reach had diminished until his show appeared only in his home market of Chicago, where the Tribune Co. decided it was time for Bozo to honk his last horn and slip on his last banana peel. This news came as a shock to me. Not because I'm a Bozo fan, but because in my peregrinations around the American business scene, Bozo's influence seems greater then ever. In fact, I seem to meet the great man himself wherever I go, plying his trademark band of leadership tricks in corporate boardrooms, executive suites, and plants across the country. To wit: Cream-Pie-in-the-Face Management: Bozo kept cast members and guests on their toes with an ever-present threat of a cream pie in the face. I can't tell you how many CEOs and executives I've met who believe in the same technique for keeping their subordinates on edge. But instead of cream pies, these Bozos suddenly erupt at or overrule their managers in team meetings. They request detailed memos on new projects overnight, with no intention of reading them for weeks. They use strategic planning sessions as opportunities to lob time-wasting, incendiary questions -- "hand grenades," one VP calls them -- at their subordinates. These techniques keep managers on their toes, all right, if only to be ready to leap at the first opportunity to leave. A non-Bozo is smart enough to know that real management coaching is done in private, and that setting management "tests" in the form of unread memos and reports violates the trust not only of his employees, but of his employer, too. Size 184-1/2 Shoe Self-Infatuation: Bozo's sartorial elegance included a pair of shoes so big that neither he nor anyone else believed that anyone could ever fill them. The Bozos I meet in boardrooms share a similar belief in the size of their own shoes, and consequently insist on taking the lion's share of the credit for their companies' successes. Even worse, their presumed infallibility prevents them from delegating to the very employees who could save them from sticking those size 184-1/2s squarely in their own mouths. A non-Bozo always spreads the work, the credit, and the rewards. Chimpanzee Consultants: Whenever Bozo's show got dull, he brought in top humor consultants guaranteed to get a laugh -- namely, a bunch of chimpanzees in costumes. In tough economic times executive Bozos reach out for similar help, in similar human-like clothing, only these consultants charge a lot more than bananas. Yet most of the turnarounds I've seen have been accomplished not by high-priced outsiders, but by motivated insiders -- after the Bozos have been pushed out of their way. A non-Bozo understands that the best ideas for weathering the storm will come from those closest to the rain, i.e., front-line employees. Grand-Prize-Game Budgeting: Bozo gave kids a chance to win prizes and applause by throwing Ping-Pong balls into a line of six buckets. At most companies, Bozos reward their managers for fitting their budgets, plans, and ROIs into similar one-size-catches-all spreadsheet buckets -- regardless of the complexities of differing markets and strategies. A non-Bozo encourages innovation, creativity, and variety not only in products, but also in the ways that different business units operate. Nobody wants to be a Bozo, I suppose. After all, even Joey D'Auria, the real Bozo since 1984, told the Associated Press: "Bozo these days is kind of a dinosaur." Unfortunately, most of the clowns I meet in management don't have a clue that they're about to be extinct. How about you? John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, now is editorial director of the Chief Executive Group, publisher of Chief Executive magazine.

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