On Leadership: BP, Dell, Wall Street -- where have the corporate heroes gone?

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By On Leadership
Sunday, August 1, 2010

Amy M. Wilkinson is a senior fellow at Harvard University's Center for Business and Government and a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Somehow America has forgotten that our vibrant economy, the mass majority of our jobs, and the products we use every day are a result of strong business leadership.

When was the last time you went to the grocery store to find fresh fruit, sliced turkey, toilet paper or deodorant? The CEOs of Safeway, Giant, Whole Foods and many other retailers enable our lives.

Yes, there are leaders who have violated our trust and profoundly mismanaged their organizations. Yet, the vast majority of CEOs create jobs for more than 80 percent of America's workers. In recent years, Google has created 22,000 jobs and put information at our fingertips. Apple has revolutionized music players and cellphones and irrevocably changed the way we interact with technology. Intel has built a computer chip that is 1,000 times as powerful, 100,000 times smaller and 1 million times cheaper than that of MIT's mainframe in 1965.

We don't think to thank the CEO of Waste Management when trash disappears from our curbs, but 20 million households across North America rely on the company.

So where are corporate heroes? They are working quietly among us.

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online.

In December 1995, Fortune conducted an interview with two titans of American business who defined those heady times: high growth, high return and high rewards; Jack Welch of General Electric and Roberto Goizueta of Coca-Cola.

Both became CEOs in 1981 when their companies were underperforming. Welch transformed GE into a sleek juggernaut that dominated market segments from jet engines and locomotives to finance. Goizueta shook up the culture to focus more on the customer and in the process increased Coke's market capitalization more than 30-fold.

Neither had it easy. In their Fortune interview, Welch said he was always "scared" that GE would not be nimble enough. Goizueta confided he slept like a baby: "I wake up every two hours and cry."

This gets to the heart of leadership. Leadership, like character, is what you do when the choices are hard. When things are booming, it can be fun to grow the business, introducing new products and services, hiring new employees and reaping strong profit. Tough times mean facilities closings, layoffs and bearish earnings.

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