Where's the Leadership?

Tech leaders should stop whining that they can no longer read the future

Silicon Valley workplaces today are bursting with all the cheer and optimism of a Dorothea Lange Depression photograph. In one poignant tableau, I witnessed a salvage man in the parking lot of a troubled dot-com using discarded network wiring to lash a load of PCs and office furniture to his truck. And for those left behind, the dimmed lights and switched-off air conditioning has imbued many cubicles with the ambiance of a sweat lodge. A wry graffito is popping up in lunchrooms, too: "Due to the energy crisis, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off."

If top execs are dismayed by such wisecracking, they ought to realize that in their own public comments, many keep parroting a sanitized version of the same droll slogan: "We're continuing to experience limited visibility."

Countless high-tech execs have been repeating this pickle-in-the-punchbowl of a phrase in the last few months. Overnight, it elbowed aside all that whizzy New Economy jargon like viral marketing and became high tech's lament. Translation: We can't figure out when or if anybody will want our products, and we can't figure out when or if we'll ever make money again.

Call me a stickler, but somehow I expect a little more leadership and yes, vision, from the well-compensated folks running multibillion-dollar corporations who spent the last decade reinventing the way the world works. Instead, Silicon Valley's business culture has flopped from turbo-testosterone into the passive voice. With few exceptions, such as Oracle's (ORCL ) CEO Larry Ellison, who now seems focused on pushing his company's new products and services rather than debating the weather forecast, many execs seem terrified to plot a new course and get moving on it.

I guess if we take the techies at their words, their success to date was due to a clairvoyance they once possessed about the customers' intentions. Apparently, they used to just hole up with their Magic 8-Balls and simply order up products to meet the opportunities that floated into the little window. No leadership necessary. No marketing required. Innovation optional.

A few practical voices aren't buying into this image of the Valley as helpless and hapless economic victim. "This talk about visibility is b.s.," says Christopher Lochhead, a former marketing executive at both Scient (SCNT ) and Vantive. "They have as much visibility as they had before, they just don't like what they see." And what they see is more demanding buyers, excess inventories they should have anticipated, and a dearth of new killer products customers can't live without.

So go to work, gang. Instead of putting the brakes on spending and hoping for the air to clear, it seems like an excellent time to show up with a compelling proposition and products to help companies get more efficient.

George C. Parker, assistant dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, notes that managing during times of growth and prosperity demands different skills than leading during hard times: "Some leaders find it possible to adjust their styles. Others do not. That's why there is so much turnover at the top as we move through the normal business cycle--especially in industries where the cycle operates with a vengeance." No coincidence that Timothy Koogle bemoaned, "We simply don't have good visibility on the back half of the year," the same day Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO ) announced it would replace him as CEO.

For your own health and the Valley's morale, tech leaders, drop the "visibility" thing, or at least start talking in the active voice about what you're doing. Innovation, passion, and inspired marketing have always pushed technology forward. Surely you can still see that.

By Joan O'C. Hamilton

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.