Arthur Miller’s well-known play Death Of A Salesman explores the tragic life and death of Willy Loman.
Willy is a salesman with the Wagner Company, a job he has been diligently performing for 34 years. Now aged 60 years old, Willy is experiencing the full impact of 34 years “on the road”. He has suffered nervous breakdowns, so he decides to ask the company to reposition him in New York. He is prepared to accept a cut in salary to achieve the move, as his financial needs are modest.
Willy raises the subject with Howard Wagner but surprisingly Howard has no interest in his employee’s situation. Willy feels forced to explain his need and defend his record with the company, including a close and loyal association with Howard’s father. But to no avail.
In desperation, Willy suggests his wages be reduced from $65 per week to $50 and finally to $40, since he only needs to earn enough to get by. Uncomfortable with Willy’s pleading and wishing to get on with more important issues, Howard states that there is no room for favours.
Howard finally ends the conversation by firing Willy, who feels like “an empty orange peel”. The company has eaten 34 years of his life as if it was a piece of fruit, and is now throwing the rest of him away. Willy is shattered and commits suicide.
This play is a metaphor for companies that exploit their people, taking all they need, giving little in return and throwing away the unwanted. Employees’ health, families and lives suffer.
Is the play an overstatement? Actually, the evidence of corporate consumption of people is readily available. Often it is the companies’ managers who exploit other employees for their personal gain or to fulfil their agenda.
An associate of mine experienced this behaviour recently. He had worked for the same multinational company for seven years and during that time his performance had always been highly rated.
A newly appointed boss disliked my friend and consequently undermined his authority and achievements although he exceeded all measures of performance. Recently he was dismissed.
At the exit interview, all the company’s comments were positive, except it was claimed that the company had expected sales to be stronger. This comment was in contrast to the company’s data that demonstrated that my friend’s sales achievements had been greater than budgeted sales for seven consecutive years.
However, his services were still terminated, essentially because the boss didn’t like him.
Where does the leader fit into this scene? Leadership is not a position, title, job role or right; it is a responsibility, a significant, weighty responsibility for the guidance, development and support of the company’s human capital.
Leadership is about engaging employees and encouraging them to accept the merits of particular, leader-supported actions. Leadership engages the changing organisational environment, and musters and motivates the workforce to implement visionary and transformational solutions.
The key term that is evident in the current descriptions and definitions of leadership is influence.
Previous models of leadership have been about using the people of the organisation like other resources to be used and consumed; not to mobilise their capability to problem solve and contribute.
Furthermore, management should not be confused with leadership. They are distinctly different but supportive organisational functions. Management is about dealing with complexity and transacting the organisational processes, and leadership is about dealing with change and transforming the processes.
The operational philosophy of leaders today will often determine how successfully the organisational, economic and social challenges are met. Do the methods of operation of the leader exploit employees or is the leader building and developing teams of highly effective people?
To successfully meet the pressures and changes in the organisational world, the modern leader needs generous portions of compassion, decisiveness, coolness under fire, and results-oriented thinking.
Truly responsible leaders are not administrators, commanders or abdicators. They are passionate, empathic, strategic solution finders — are you?