The New Economy as we knew it in the 1990s brought much that was new and refreshing to work — casual office culture, enthusiastic employees, nonhierarchical leadership principles. It also led to excesses (on-site personal fitness trainers, luxury cars, stratospheric salaries for unseasoned managers, stock options for everyone) that topped even the avarice of the 1980s.
That party is over, for now. Internet entrepreneurs (the few that are left) are more restrained. Corporate leaders are reverting to classic styles of leadership. In Europe, CEOs such as Gunter Thielen of Bertelsmann AG and Jürgen Dormann of ABB Group are concentrating on basic tasks: business and cost consolidation, reorganization, and shifting of strategic priorities.
Does this imply that the New Economy managerial style is appropriate only during boom times? Is command-and-control the normal leadership standard?
The truth is, leadership styles are always evolving, with newer elements complementing more traditional ones. Increasingly, senior executives, even entire corporate cultures, are combining classic leadership values, such as discipline, focus, and execution, with more contemporary values, including openness, a greater emphasis on the quality of communication, and naturalness. This bodes well for the future of all companies.
In many ways, it’s unsurprising that the integration of a new, younger generation of leaders into archetypal industrial enterprises is producing new leadership methods. It remains to be seen, though, whether this trend will include continued appreciation for one of the most beneficial shifts in business culture to occur during the 1990s — a greater tolerance and respect for expressing emotion and personal values, even spirituality. As Anselm Grün, a German Benedictine friar who is the business manager of the Abbey of Münsterschwarzach in Germany and an author of many books, writes: Only one who “is able to find his peace inside himself, and in God, may create an atmosphere of peace around himself, making employees feel well and enabling them to enjoy their work.” Grün, who oversees 20 companies owned by the Benedictine order, is also an acclaimed writer in Germany, with a strong following among German CEOs.
Another clergyman, American Matthew Fox, has preached similar themes to business executives. A former member of the Dominican order, Fox now is an Episcopal priest and founder and director of the University of Creation Spirituality in Oakland, Calif. In his book The Reinvention of Work — A New Vision of Livelihood for Our Time, published by HarperCollins in 1994 (before the exuberant half of that decade), he wrote: “Perhaps this reinventing of the quality of the workplace will also contribute to the reinventing of the quantity of work available. When workers have integrated spirituality with their work, their values, their creativity, addictions such as overwork and the practice of overworking employees might give way to more shared work.”
Neither Fox nor Grün would argue that the restlessness and tempestuousness characteristic of so many New Economy managers is an appropriate leadership style for most companies. Indeed, many of the companies led by such executives discovered that you can’t be innovative and effective if you’re always at the mercy of your passions. Creative free spirits must also be productively guided by discipline, purpose, and accountability. “Be able to lead yourself before you lead others,” Grün writes.
Leading a company must be more than a hobby, and certainly more than fun. Leaders must demonstrate realism, maturity, knowledge, and a little wisdom. “A distinguishing mark of a ripe human being is his sobriety,” the sixth-century monk St. Benedict pointed out. He went on: “Sober is the one who sees things as they really are, not as he would like them to be.” The past years have proven our fateful tendency to cherish illusions about our economic reality. We can only hope that sobriety is now molding the thinking of future managers.