At a large public meeting the other day, a woman stood up and asked me to describe the weaknesses of Darden’s peer schools. Competition among Darden and its peers is quite intense. Academicians are natural critics and have no lack of opinions. I’ve been a professor for 24 years and see the warts of the entire field pretty clearly. And web chat boards, stoked by passionate students and alumni, can offer stinging charges and rebuttals—surely the rising rhetoric would permit a Dean to unburden himself of a few choice comments about his or her competitors. Yet I declined to respond.

On my watch, Darden will take the high road and not contribute to the rhetoric. First, I respect our peers highly; public criticisms of them are easily construed as disrespect. Second, some of the rhetoric is over the top; I have no desire to stoke it further. Third, a Dean can’t offer any criticisms that the World Wide Web hasn’t heard already from someone else. Finally, let him who is perfect cast the first stone. A Dean will have a very clear view of where his or her school needs to improve. Administrative clarity and a modest dose of humility are sufficient to quell any desire to dump mud on one’s peers.

In recent years we have heard celebrity CEOs in a number of fields offer up some highly entertaining and pungent criticism of peer firms. Therein lies a thought for the business practitioner: does your savage-the-competition rhetoric really serve you or your stakeholders well? What does it say about your sense of psychological security or your level of hubris? What does it suggest to prospective employees about respect in the work environment? Is your brand really any stronger (or perhaps weaker) if you blabber on about the competition? Will your shareholders be comforted to know that you want to win the rhetorical battle whatever the cost?

In contrast to the high-rhetoric CEO, consider an alternative. In his book Good to Great, Batten Fellow Jim Collins reported that a key driver of extraordinary corporate performance is the “Level Five Leader,” one who combines personal humility with strong professional determination. He or she just hunkers down and delivers the great performance without the rhetorical thunder and lightning. Which kind of CEO would you rather be?

Bob Bruner
Dean, Darden School of Business

Posted by Robert Bruner at 08/17/2006 09:16:06 PM