Wolsey: “So farewell—to the little good you bear me.

Farewell? A long farewell to all my greatness!

This is the state of man: to-day he puts forth

The tender leaves of hopes, to-morrow blossoms,

And bears his blushing honors thick upon him;

The third day comes a frost, a killing frost,

And when he thinks, good easy man, full surely

His greatness is a-ripening, nips his root,

And then he falls as I do.”

Henry the Eighth (Act 3, Scene 2, 350-358)

William Shakespeare

Today the papers are full of the news of Robert Nardelli’s
resignation as CEO of Home Depot. This makes front-page news
in the Wall
Street Journal
and New
York Times
. The blogs will have a field day. This is the
final act of a tragedy that began with the optimistic hiring
of a Jack Welch lieutenant and soured with the revelation of
Nardelli’s pay package and brusque style. The fact that Home
Depot’s stock price fell was the last straw for Relational
and others who called for the Board of
Directors to intervene. Nardelli’s exit package of $210
million will stoke outrage among investors—but that’s
grist for another day’s posting.

Business schools have a great deal to say about one’s career progression and climb up to executive power. And they have a great deal to say about keeping one’s position. But business schools are relatively mute about leaving office, or one’s “greatness.” Behind so many of the executive partings are pain, despair, and bitterness. A pre-eminent example of this is the immortal statement by Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor who exercised almost complete control over English government policy from 1515 to 1527– in Henry the Eighth he says, “A long farewell to all my greatness!” One can read this as full of disappointment or cynicism—the “killing frost” always kills greatness; this is the state of man. But Wolsey reveals much of the origin of his own downfall. Throughout the play he emerges as a most ambitious courtier, pursuing wealth and power with the hope of securing the Papacy for himself. Ultimately, Henry VIII deposed Wolsey as Lord Chancellor when Wolsey failed to secure a Papal annulment so that Henry could remarry.

By “greatness” Wolsey actually means “power.” This conflation of the two concepts is, I think, at the core of our post-modernist confusion about leadership. If the only meaning we make of leadership is that it has to do with the exercise of power, then the absence of power renders one’s career meaningless. But consider some additional characteristics of greatness, such as inspiration, service, wisdom, creativity, integrity, high standards, and pursuing Truth. Also, does “greatness” only describe those at the apex of the organizational pyramid? Howard Gardner has argued that great leadership need not be associated with the top or with power. We derive leadership also from intellect (Grigori Perelman), social conscience (Aung San Suu Kyi), invention (Craig Venter), and courage in the face of great challenges (Lance Armstrong). Ultimately, a focus on “greatness” as power obscures the heroism that society should truly applaud.

Farewell to “greatness,” indeed. We will see more executive exits this year; the average tenure of a large-corporate CEO is something less than five years today. Let us focus less on the departure than on how he or she ruled. Let us focus on the entire range of leadership qualities rather than on the simple exercise of power.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 01/04/2007 10:49:16 AM