In the comic strip "Blondie," Dagwood Bumstead's boss, Mr. Dithers, wears a perpetual frown, keeping Dagwood always on edge. Granted, the bumbling Dagwood could probably test the patience of many bosses. But Mr. Dithers's feisty manner appears to send a broader warning: Give this CEO a wide berth.
Tension-filled management styles like that of Mr. Dithers draw laughs in the comics. But they're hardly funny in real life, as headlines this month have shown. Last week Ron Galotti, publisher of GQ magazine, resigned under pressure in the wake of what company officials described as widespread unhappiness among employees. They called his management style "abrasive" and his selling techniques "brash."
By contrast, they describe Mr. Galotti's successor, Peter King Hunsinger, as even-keeled.
A few days earlier, in similar vein, The New York Times announced the appointment of a new executive editor, Bill Keller. A veteran reporter, Mr. Keller is earning praise from colleagues and superiors for his "decency" and for being "an accomplished manager and a trusted leader." That represents a shift, they say, from the approach of his predecessor, Howell Raines, who conceded that many people on the staff viewed him as "inaccessible and arrogant."
Could these high-profile, high-powered appointments be the harbinger of friendlier work environments elsewhere? Two examples do not constitute a trend. But couple them with the widespread public dismay over the arrogance of executives at Enron and WorldCom, and change might be in the wind.
In a newsroom meeting, Keller told the staff that he does not regard their work as "an endless combat mission," the paper reports. Instead, he wants colleagues to savor life a little more, either spending time with their families or enjoying culture. "That will enrich you and your work as much as a competitive pulse rate will," he said.
What refreshing advice for CEOs in every business to give their underlings.
Keller's reference to combat missions is reminiscent of attitudes in the mid-1980s, when a spate of books advocated a militaristic approach to leadership. William Peacock's "Corporate Combat" claims, "The most successful corporate chiefs follow the principles of war in guiding their corporate armies to victory." And in "Office Warfare," Marilyn Moats Kennedy focuses on "corporate battlefields" and company "war zones."
Twenty-five years ago, a headline in The Christian Science Monitor suggested a different approach, phrased in the form of a question. "Tenderness in the board room?" it asked. The idea seems pertinent today in the context of these mellower management styles.
Anticipating a time when more women would rise to top positions, the article, by staff writer Charlotte Saikowski, emphasized that women must "do things differently - without secrecy, dirty pool, manipulation, and the rest." Simply following the male model of leadership, one author told Ms. Saikowski, will not bring progress.
The number of women at the top remains small. But men can also adapt leadership styles that motivate workers without spreading fear. Anxiety already runs high these days as workers face uncertainty about layoffs, corporate downsizing, and pension security. All the more reason for CEOs to try a little macho-style tenderness, within the bounds of their difficult jobs.
As Mr. Hunsinger takes over at GQ and Keller assumes his post at The New York Times, outsiders may never know how the atmosphere will change within those organizations. A certain amount of tension between bosses and underlings goes with the territory, especially in the competitive, 24/7 world of globalization. But these latest acknowledgments that too much tension is counterproductive have the potential to reshape the corporate landscape everywhere.
A little more time for family and for culture. A little less time spent worrying about the boss. It could be a recipe for more productivity rather than less.
Mr. Dithers, take note.