– P. J. O’Rourke
It’s widely held that the best leaders do more than make things work on the bottom line. There are many examples of successful leaders in terms of contributions to the financial success of their companies or organizations. Yet we’ve also seen – far too often – examples of leaders that delivered very positive financial results that turned out to be built on false pretenses (think Bernie Madoff and Enron). Seemingly successful leaders that did not practice financial fraud but let down their companies by exhibiting unethical behavior (think H-P’s former CEO Mark Hurd and former Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn) impugned the reputation of their respective companies for selfish reasons. When it comes to truly winning leadership – the fish stinks from the head down.
There are many reasons why when it comes to running a company the saying goes ‘it’s lonely at the top’. A leader balancing commitment to positive performance while maintaining business ethics should be standard operating procedure. I’d like to believe that most leaders take on new challenges with exactly those thoughts in mind. But we know better. Pressures for performance can cause compromises in business ethics especially when the very survival of the enterprise is at stake.
It goes beyond business doesn’t it? When I think of the volunteer boards I’ve been a part of there have been a few in which bad and selfish leadership poisoned the entire organization. When a leader is only interested in hearing his or her voice the organization’s willingness to pull in the same direction is or will be lost. At that point what happens is that good people leave the board or company, the pool of potential good new talent becomes shallower (word does get around) and the spiral towards complete ineffectiveness is well underway.
There’s a word that all leaders need to constantly keep in mind – humility. And I mean real humility – not false humility. Having humility does not mean one has to be soft. It seems to me that sometimes people confuse that concept. Nobody has much use for a wishy-washy leader – a leader that lacks confidence is hardly inspiring. But hubris often gets mixed up with confidence and the combination is often tragic and sometimes catastrophic. Believing in your own omnipotence whether that is a conscious thought or not is a path to failure – moral and professional.
Former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin (remember him during Hurricane Katrina?) was recently indicted on 21 charges including wire fraud, bribery and money laundering. Could there be any other explanation for his malfeasance than a total succumbing to his own bravado and misguided sense of purpose? The answer has to be it’s possible but I would suggest a lack of humility and misguided moral compass would be the primary drivers. It is often argued that people get caught up in their own mission to make a difference and sometimes lose their way – but one should never lose the exceedingly important moral compass.
When a leader violates his or hers organizational trust and confidence the entire organization takes a hit at the same time. Unfortunately for the innocent bystanders – the smell of the fish stinking from the head down pervades the entire organization. Removing the smell requires more than a little disinfectant. Fast Company magazine posed an article on the five characteristics of great leaders, by Bill McBean as part of his book, (which I have yet to read) The Facts of Business Life - and you can rest assured being a closed-minded blowhard is not one of them. My personal favorite is #5 – being responsible. While Mr. McBean uses the expression ‘A skunk stinks from the head down’ (I always that skunks just stink all over) the intent is to compare that to businesses which he notes do as well.
Always keep in mind that every organization takes its lead and direction from its leader. How that leader wishes to be remembered should be part of every action, every day. All the money in the world cannot repair a terminally damaged reputation.