If there's a better time to discuss leadership, I'm not sure what it is.
Now in its 14th year, the Wharton Leadership Confer-
ence will take over Hunts-
man Hall on the University of Pennsylvania Wednesday amid the man-made catastrophe fouling the Gulf of Mexico.
The failures of BP P.L.C. have riveted the nation for the last eight weeks. CEO Tony Hayward has gone from having no public profile in the United States to becoming the most hated executive in America.
But the BP disaster is only the latest of a series of amazing lapses in judgment by the upper echelons of some of the world's biggest corporations.
Case studies were written about Johnson & Johnson's effective response to a Tylenol tampering scare in the 1980s. But during the last year, J&J has undone years of consumer goodwill and advertising about "the brand you trust" with shoddy manufacturing practices at factories in Fort Washington and Puerto Rico.
And Toyota Motor Corp. showed an eagerness to trade decades of quality car design and assembly for the mantle of world's biggest automaker. All it cost was the recalls of more than eight million vehicles and a series of congressional investigations.
No, there won't be any BP, J&J or Toyota executives giving presentations at the Wharton conference in West Philadelphia. But management professor Michael Useem told me that he certainly anticipates that the leadership of "BP and other companies that have faltered or fizzled or failed" will come up.
Hosted by Useem and fellow Wharton management prof Peter Cappelli, the conference has the theme of "Leading in a Recovering (and Even Rebounding) Economy." It's a worthy discussion to be having at a time of great anxiety over the poor job market and uncertainty over the strength of the economic recovery.
The CEOs of two large publicly held companies will be giving presentations: Scott Davis, chairman and CEO of United Parcel Service Inc., the package delivery company; and Robert Kelly, chairman and CEO of Bank of New York Mellon Corp.
But leadership that matters doesn't only come from the world's biggest organizations. That's why the Wharton agenda includes Mary Ellen Iskenderian, president and CEO of Women's World Banking, a network of microfinance institutions, and Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra.
The question is whether any of the speakers' messages will resonate given the latest episodes of corporate bumbling that are corroding the faith Americans typically place in private enterprise.
Certainly, BP's Hayward has not been caught playing a fiddle while his oil empire burns. But his actions remind no one of the conductor of a polished, precise organization. And while society can tolerate a fair amount of dissonance and chaos in music, that's not true when it comes to the dangerous business of oil production.