What do Ramalinga Raju, Phaneesh Murthy, Mark Hurd, and Rajat Gupta, have in common? All of them are exceptionally competent business leaders. And all of them went from the ‘wall of fame’ to the ‘wall of shame’.
If great leadership is all about competence, then what failed them? What failed them is the ‘soft’ side of leadership — convictions and character.
Business education and media coverage of business successes often highlight only the ‘hard’ stuff — the brilliant strategy, the incisive questions, the sparkling quarterly results, and the ruthless decisions. But the corporate graveyard is filled with leaders who failed not because of flaws in their competence, but because of flaws in their character. Often, all it takes is a single bad choice, and the guillotine falls because as the saying goes: ‘There’s never only one cockroach in the kitchen.’
These are qualities we must make part of ourselves early enough. Let’s look at three areas we could start with.
Mark Hurd, who was CEO at HP, was fired for faking an expense report; Scott Thompson, who was CEO at Yahoo, was ousted for being creative on his resume; and Rajat Gupta did jail-time from trying to profit by sharing confidential client information with his stock broker friend. Each was a fatal failure of integrity.
As leaders, do we believe in ‘walking the talk’? Are we prepared to do the right thing even when no one is watching? Are we prepared to do the right thing even when it is inconvenient, even when business results are at risk? What would we have done if we were at Enron, at Volkswagen, at Satyam?
People crave for ‘authenticity’ in a leader. They then know that what they see is what they get — there are no hidden agendas or dishonesty in communication. In a world where fake maps can confuse, people seek the clarity of a leader’s compass that will always point ‘north’.
A healthy self-image may seem like an incongruous choice of leadership quality, but it is the foundation that allows a leader to make one of his biggest contributions — building others up.
Poor self-esteem can make leaders feel insecure the moment another team member achieves some success. This can lead to dysfunctional behaviour — being rude, condescending, refusing to share information, sabotaging another’s plans, micro-managing and, in its worst form, actively plotting to bring down a team member.
This can make the leader feel invincible, but it achieves quite the opposite — it weakens team spirit and performance and ultimately brings the leader down. It’s like a leader chopping the branch on which he is sitting.
A good sense of self-esteem, on the other hand, helps the leader keep working on making himself dispensable. He builds others up, shares credit, coaches and mentors, praises the performance of the team, downplays the ‘I’ and plays up the ‘we’. Ratan Tata is an excellent example.
“I do not know how history will judge me, but let me say that I’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to transform the Tatas from a patriarchal concern to an institutional enterprise. It would, therefore, be a mark of failure if it were perceived that Ratan Tata epitomises the Group’s success. What I have done is establish growth mechanisms, play down individuals and play up the team that has made the companies what they are. I, for one, am not the kind who loves dwelling on the ‘I’. If history remembers me at all, I hope it will be for this transformation.”
Jim Collins, in his insightful book Good to Great writes about the highest level of leadership being Level 5 — the Executive level. He portrays Level 5 leaders as those who have a ‘paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will’.
Think Ratan Tata and Warren Buffet; think Ingvar Kamprad (founder of IKEA who, with a net worth in the billions, still flies economy class and advocates frugality and simplicity). Such humility creates a willingness to listen, a willingness to accept mistakes, a willingness to learn and embrace diversity.
Often, business leaders can barely hide their arrogance and consider it a defining trait of their leadership and intellectual superiority. Consider these lines from the resignation letter of a start-up CEO to his Board:
“Dear board members and investors, I don’t think you guys are intellectually capable enough to have any sensible discussion anymore. This is something which I not just believe but can prove on your faces also (sic)!”
It is no wonder that soon after, the Board ‘relieved’ him, referring to “his behaviour towards investors, ecosystem and the media. The Board believes that his behaviour is not befitting of a CEO and is detrimental to the company”. Notice here, that there is no talk of incompetence or poor results — just bad behaviour.
The soft stuff is often dismissed as ‘warm and fuzzy’, but it is the soft skills of the leader, along with his hard skills that make the difference between being a good manager and a great leader.
How do my convictions hold up in the face of deadlines? How do I handle competing priorities? How do I handle failure and mistakes? How do I build networks that I learn from and contribute to? Have I got role models that stand the test of time? Can I lead from my convictions? Do I care for my team and see them as more than ‘people on the payroll’? Do I find myself thinking ‘OR’ most of the time, win-lose or can I creatively think ‘AND’ and go for Win-win?
Jim Rohn put it beautifully when he said, “The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humour, but without folly.”
That’s simple, not easy. After all, ‘the soft stuff is the hard stuff.’
Leo Fernandez is CEO and Co-Founder of TalentEase Pte Ltd. Leo is passionate about making a difference. With 18 years of leadership experience, Leo has spent his career bringing together high-performance talent, crafting winning partnerships with clients and developing solutions for business change. Prior to founding TalentEase, Leo was a Partner with Accenture, based at Singapore.
He has an abiding interest in the Asia Pacific region and in showcasing it as the region to drive global innovation and step change. His current projects involve education and micro-entrepreneurship. He has a Bachelor’s in Economics and a Master’s in Business Administration. He currently splits his time between Singapore and India.
He can be reached at [email protected]
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