Viewpoint -- The Fish Rots From The Head

Dec. 21, 2004
The moral: Executives should lead by good example.

First, an admission. I follow and cheer for a football team that is not beloved of my lords and masters at IW's home office in Cleveland. In fact, this football team moved from Cleveland to Baltimore, though not under cover of darkness, as the team I idolized in my youth did when it relocated to Indianapolis. I followed the team to the Super Bowl, and was actually in my hometown of Baltimore when the Ravens shut down the Giants and won the whole thing, big silver trophy and all. I might even have let out a few woofs when a few people asked who let the dogs out. I admit that, but without apologizing for it. The point of that admission is not to rub Baltimore's Super Bowl glory in the faces of my editors, who have to read this because they get paid to. No, I'm really not trying to rub my editors' faces into the fact that Art Modell's team, which moved from Cleveland, was completely dominant in the Super Bowl that just occurred. That wouldn't be nice, and I make a point of being nice at least 23% of the time. My point is that I tried to follow the second-to-last game, the AFC championship, from Ireland, where football is something different. It's generally either rugby or soccer -- a hooligan's game played by gentlemen or a gentlemen's game played by hooligans, respectively -- or a weird hybrid called Gaelic football that I love and don't really understand. And my point is that I failed to follow the American Football Conference Championship, or at least that I failed to follow it in a way that might have made me feel as though I was celebrating with my father and my sisters and my cousins and my nieces and nephews and old schoolmates as the game progressed. In the game a week earlier, I was able to cheer myself hoarse as the incredible Baltimore defense pulled off another remarkable play. But in the AFC championship, there was no radio broadcast over the Internet, so I had to rely on the equivalent of e-mails describing what had happened. In other words, I might as well have been Samuel F.B. Morse, waiting for an answer to the immortal "What hath God wrought?" telegraph. Or I might have been a radio listener back in the '30s who actually believed Ronald Reagan was at the game he was broadcasting. In this age of nearly instant communication, I was frustrated and angry when I had to wait 90 or, even worse, 91 seconds for an update on the game. And then I started to think about factories, and the way communication works there. And I thought about a top executive I know -- one of many -- who relies on his secretary to print out e-mails he gets. (I actually saw a print-out of one of my e-mails on his desk.) I'm very fond of this particular executive, but I think he's missing something important. The guy is paying his secretary to move the mouse over to the print button, which a monkey could be trained to do. He's paying her to walk to the laser printer to retrieve the paper that he'll have to pay money to get rid of. He's paying her to put it on his desk. And then, knowing him, he's paying her to respond if he thinks I'm worth getting back to. As my 20-something friends would say: Duh? I think this sort of behavior is probably more prevalent in Europe, where I operate, than in the U.S. But I would imagine that there are at least a few American executives who believe that one of the perks of their exalted positions is having a secretary print out e-mails. Granted, some of these execs probably can't figure out how to operate the computers, and it would take weeks and months for them to get comfortable with the things. But isn't that what they're constantly asking the folks on the shop floor to do? In the 1988 presidential election, Michael Dukakis received heaps of abuse for using what he said was an old Greek saying: "The fish rots from the head." Whether the abuse was deserved or not, there's much to that saying. It's an earthier way of saying that the best leadership is by example. And as executives push their workers to do their jobs more efficiently, they can show their understanding of the workers' position by trying to push themselves, too. And they can start by answering their own e-mails. Tom Mudd is IW's European Bureau Chief. He is based in Dublin.

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