The Missing Elephant in the Bedroom

Jack Welch, GE’s former CEO and leadership maven made headlines by castigating Hewlett Packard’s board for gross negligence in the wake of the scandal that cost CEO, Mark Hurd, his job. However it was not the scandal per se that drew his ire, but that HP had done such a poor job in succession planning and overall leadership development.

“The Hewlett-Packard board has committed sins over the last 10 years,” said Mr. Welch. “They have not done one of the primary jobs of a board, which is to prepare the next generation of leadership…They end up blowing up the CEO’s and don’t have anyone else in mind to come in. Where the hell was the leadership development?”

During his amazingly successful tenure at GE, Welch spent more than one third of his precious time on the “people issues” of leadership development and succession planning.

But while I applaud Welch for using his bully pulpit to point out HP’s gross negligence and by implication the sinfulness of so many other corporations, my only criticism is that he didn’t go far enough. Our entire society represents a grossly negligent board of directors. A board of directors that is failing at succession planning and leadership development because our young men and boys are not being prepared for the most critical leadership role of all: fatherhood. And the single biggest reason for this lamentable and potentially calamitous culture shock is that so many of our potential leaders are coming of age in fatherless homes.

Several years ago Will Willimon, my mentor and then Dean of the Duke Chapel, was addressing the parents of the incoming freshmen at Duke University when a mother asked, “What is the single biggest problem you face with our children?” Willimon shouted at the top of his lungs, “Your divorces!”

Through divorce and single mothers, a larger and larger percentage of our society’s pool of potential leaders is being raised with nonexistent or absentee fathers, and while this is hard on girls it is often devastating for boys.

When I look at my own life and the lives of my six brothers, I am constantly reminded of the critical role that my father played in everything we have accomplished. While far from perfect, my father was the consummate “family man” sparing neither himself nor at times the rod in his indefatigable efforts to transform his brood of boys into men. And though we reluctantly learned a lot from the speeches that arose unbidden from his own bully pulpit at the head of the dinner table, we learned far more through the daily osmosis of his self sacrificing example.

As I noted in Men Are Rapidly Going Obsolete in the Wall Street Journal, more and more young men are “voting with their feet” and “opting out.” Much to the chagrin of women, those with resources are practicing serial monogamy as those without means retreat to their parent’s basements to play video games.

A recent spate of articles (largely written by women) are chronicling this disturbing trend with provocative titles like The Rise of Women, the Atlantic’s The End of Men, and Where Have All the Good Men Gone? from the Wall Street Journal. But while the reams of statistics that back these articles are usually treated as lamentable, what most of their authors fail to realize is that we only have to look to our inner cities to see how potentially dangerous young men become when they no longer buy into fatherhood and by extension the civilizing influences that families bequeath. If men as a whole continue to regress toward the hunting and gathering behaviors we see in the “tribalism” of gang life in our inner cities, the beneficent and pacific matriarchy that so many eagerly anticipate may only mean the decline of civilization instead.

An article in Nature reported that when well intentioned gamekeepers culled elephant herds of old bulls, the young males went on a “killing spree” resulting in the death of many rhinoceroses and trampled villages. Completely perplexed, the keepers feared they would have to destroy the young males until someone suggested reintroducing older males. Almost immediately the old bulls took the younger males in hand and insisted they “settle down.”

Similarly, reestablishing the link between human masculinity and paternity first begins by acknowledging the crucial role that fathers play in the process. Fathers are not optional. They are essential.

Secondly, despite obvious benefits, we must acknowledge the limits to what we generally refer to as “education.” Education is primarily an intellectual process that believes that the attitudes and values that shape behavior are the result of a conscious decision making process based on “reason.” Instead, research has clearly shown that most of the values that shape our character and eventually our actions are picked up through the unconscious osmosis of parents and peers. Like that disastrous experiment called Communism, much of our current woes are the result of top down “command and control” social engineering, which, like idealistic communist cadres, unleashed a torrent of unintended consequences by privileging reason while denying the basic truths of human nature.

Third, women must regain the socio-economic power they lost through the so-called female Sexual Revolution. Traditionally the most important civilizing role that women played was insisting that sex be linked to commitment and fatherhood. As unflattering to our egos as it may sound, the old adage that “no one buys the cow when the milk is free” is just as true now as it was when somewhere in the misty predawn of history women invented civilization by winning the battle for monogamy.

Finally, it is going to take some humility. It is downright insulting to think that elephants know more about raising young men and ordering our society than our PhD’s do. In our vanity we cling to the notion that we are free agents making decisions in a vacuum based on reason alone while only the “other guy” is a “slave” to genetic influences and that confounding cultural ether we all breathe in every day. Undeniably, as a species we are extremely adaptable, but we must never forget that the Oracle of Delphi called Socrates the wisest of all men: He was the wisest of all men because he realized he was stupid.

Visit my Forbes.com blog for more on how societal issues affect your business and life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>