Communications and Media

The Smartest Guys in the Room

Chapter One of Kouzes and  Posner’s book  The Leadership Challenge (2007) examines that way in which leadership impacts organizations of all types and at all levels. the chapter, titled “The Five Practices of Exemplary  Leadership”  explores what might be best described as an optimistic and idealistic position on the role of leaders and the influence that leaders exert over not only the pragmatic functioning of a company or organization, but on the morale and moral bearing of the people under their supervision. One of the key criticisms that might be leveled against the material presented in this chapter is that the authors have chosen to approach the concept of leadership on grounds that emphasize the most positivistic aspects of the paradigms presented in the chapter. In other words, it may well be the case that the principles that are specified in the chapter form a solid groundwork for successful leadership, but the question remains as to whether these same principles can be thought of as being applicable not only to the selected real-world examples that were included in the chapter but to more challenging situations such as those presented in Alex Gibney’s film: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room  (2005). The film depicts the criminal collapse of a massive corporation which was brought about by the fraud and abuses of it corporate officers and top executives.

The obvious question in relation to  Kouzes and  Posner’s positions on leadership and Gibney’s film is whether or not the leadership principles included in Chapter One of The Leadership Challenge provide an adequate set of parameters to prevent the events surrounding the implosion of Enron as described in the film. The immediate response to the question given by many observers is likely to be that the corruption and greed evidenced  in the Enron scandal far exceeds the guidelines for leadership and excellence that are offered by Kouzes and  Posner. However, the alternate viewpoint: that the leadership principles offered in Chapter One are a good antidote to the corruption and greed shown in the film  is not without merit. The basic way to determine whether or not the principles detailed in the chapter could have prevented the problems encountered by Enron is to examine the story of Enron in direct relationship to the main principles outlined in the chapter.

One key principle that is mentioned is that “Titles are for granted, but it’s your behavior that wins you respect” (Kouzes & Posner, 2007, 15). This statement should be taken as an underlying principle of all the other material expressed by the authors. This simple statement sets the bar very high for the personal conduct of nay high-ranking executive. Obviously, in the case of Enron, the titles that were held by Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling,  J. Clifford Baxter, and others caused these individuals to feel as though their merits as executives came before their obligation to earn respect and success. rather than accepting this tenant, the executives at Enron embraced a feeling of entitlement. they believed that their titles meant they were exempt from regulation, oversight, or responsibility.

Another principle discussed in the chapter was the idea of how leaders are able to ‘model the way’ for both functional and ethical conduct in the organizations they serve. Obviously, in the case of Enron, the executives in question felt as though the company merely served as a platform for their own excesses and pride. lay, for example, claimed to have no knowledge of or involvement in the financial crimes perpetuated by the company.  Louis Borget, the CEO of Enron was found to have  funneled money into offshore bank accounts. these kinds of behaviors show a conspicuous lack of responsibility and accountability by the executives in the Enron company.  The connected principle “Inspire a Shared Vision” cited by the authors in Chapter One  can only be seen as ironic in regard to the practices at Enron that were described by the film.

According to Chapter One, leaders should, in addition to the principles already outlined, “Challenge the Process,” “Inspire Others to Act,” and “Encourage the Heart.” In terms of how these principles may or may not relate to the activities at Enron, one thing is immediately clear and that is the fact that the guiding ideals offered in Chapter One  were practically inverted in the practices that happened at Enron. The executives at Enron were committed to not only bending, but outright breaking, the rules of leadership that are specified in the chapter. As previously mentioned, the behavior exhibited by the corporate executives at Enron was anything but authentic leadership. instead, all aspects of being responsible or inspiring were left behind by the corporate executives who were concerned only with personal power and enrichment.

Obviously, the film about the Enron catastrophe demonstrates quite clearly that principles of leadership are necessary in relation to huge companies such as Enron. The fact is that a leadership ethic is needed for a company or organization of any scope and size. As is evidenced by Chapter One, there are two basic ways of looking at leadership. One is to view leadership as a measure of responsibility and the other is to view leadership as an entitlement. In terms of the first perspective, the principles outlined by the authors in Chapter One show a tremendously significant grasp of the dynamics that exist between organizations and leaders.  Conversely, the second perspective of leadership indicates only the degree of incompetency and irresponsibility that accompany a sense of self-importance and self-interest.

While it is unlikely that the ideas about leadership that are discussed in Chapter One will ever be so widely adhered to that corruption in corporations is ended, the adherence to the principles would certainly have prevented the Enron crisis. The core-problem in relation to leadership and ideals is that  so many leaders are willing to sacrifice their ideals for personal power and enrichment.  Until principles of leadership such as those suggested in the reading are embraced on a wide scale, additional corporate collapses, abuses, and scandals such as those portrayed in the film are likely to continue.


Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2007). The leadership challenge (4th ed.). San

Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.