Q & A: Where Have All the Leaders Gone?
An Interview With the Timothy F. Bednarz, Ph.D., Author of Great! What Makes Leaders Great
The editors of Majorium Business Press recently had the opportunity to interview Timothy Bednarz about his book: Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It (Majorium Business Press, Stevens Point, WI 2012) to discuss his thoughts on the crisis of leadership being witnessed in America today.
Q: The research presented in Great! focuses upon 160 influential leaders, spanning 235 years. I would like to start our discussion by asking, do you believe leadership has changed over time?
Bednarz: The concept of what constitutes great leadership hasn’t changed over time. When I first started my research, I thought that genuinely great leadership was a thing of the past, but I was surprised to discover there are individuals today who can classified as great leaders.
There is no doubt that individuals are shaped by the times they lived in. However the great leaders rose to the pinnacles of success, while many of their contemporaries failed. What made the difference was the fact they developed the characteristics and leadership dimensions that allowed them to succeed.
Q: So you’re saying leadership hasn’t changed?
Bednarz: No, that’s not quite true. What has undoubtedly changed is the focus on short-term profitability and shareholder value, which often sacrifices a company’s long-term viability. This trend emerged in the mid 1980s after the success of Jack Welch at GE. Many CEOs jumped on the bandwagon and this trend changed the face of corporate leadership ever since. Consequently, this has severely eroded trust and credibility after years of scandals and downsizing that has affected literally millions of people.
Q: What impact has these two factors had on today’s leaders?
Bednarz: The Edelman Trust Barometer, which has evaluated global trust levels for the past 12 years, reported that the current levels of credibility of today’s CEOs has dropped to an all time low of 38%. This reflects a decrease of over 12% in the past twelve months.
Q: What are the implications of this drop in CEO’s credibility?
Bednarz: What is interesting about Edelman’s survey is that it emphasizes that without trust and credibility, a leaders lose their legitimacy to lead. Just because individuals are either appointed or elected to high positions of authority, doesn’t mean they have earned it. They may have the power and authority that comes with their position, but the legitimacy to lead must be granted by others, such as employees, voters, suppliers, communities, investors, and a host of potential constituencies, which leaders serve.
Q: How does this influence the concept of leadership?
Bednarz: Referring back to the idea of the earned right to lead, and from the decrease in credibility, many so-called leaders today have lost their focus on what is true leadership. To go back to your original question; has leadership changed? I firmly believe, great leadership is defined by the ability of an individual to earn the trust, respect and credibility of those that the leader serves. He or she has earned the legitimacy to lead. Every great leader I researched, over 235 years possessed trust, credibility and legitimacy, and 58% of the leaders I survey can be included in this category. All too many today solely focus on the financial performance of their companies and then wonder why they have lost their credibility.
Q: Is focusing on profits and financial performance wrong? After all this seems to be a theme in the current presidential campaign.
Bednarz: There is nothing wrong with being highly concerned about profits, and focusing on financial performance, but it needs to be balanced with the needs of all of one’s key constituencies. Great leaders today have proven this to be possible, without sacrificing financial performance. Jack Welch, whose example many corporate leaders follow, stated after he left GE that it is foolish to only focus on financial performance. It I only one factor to consider.
Q: Can you cite some examples of leaders today who have earned their legitimacy?
Bednarz: Certainly. Fred Smith of FedEx, Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines, Howard Schultz of Starbucks and Jeff Bezos of Amazon all come to mind, and there are certainly others.
Q: Based upon your responses and research, how would you define leadership?
Bednarz: That is an interesting question and one that I was seeking to answer, when I first started my research. There is a host of leadership books on the market, with many more written each year, yet, many are very similar, parroting the same information without providing the reader with any new insights or perspectives on the topic of leadership. I believe that to understand the topic of leadership, you need to first understand the leaders who have historically defined it and provided us with effective role models.
After years of study, I have concluded and condensed it into a brief statement; leadership is ultimately an act of faith in other people.
Q: That’s an interesting concept. Isn’t it the role of a leader to lead?
Bednarz: The operative word in your question is “lead.” The role of a leader is to inspire, motivate, influence and guide others. Think about it. In order to inspire, motivate, influence and guide other individuals, one must establish mutual bonds of loyalty, trust, respect and credibility.
Q: Can loyalty, trust, respect and credibility be measured?
Bednarz: You must understand that everything a leader does or says is judged by others and contributes to their credibility and legitimacy or ultimately undermines it. We have an environment that relies on relative rather than absolute truths. Consequently, we often observe so-called leaders making incredulous statements, devoid of any sense of intellectual honesty, and credibility, treating their audience like a bunch of fools, incapable of seeing the truth.
People view many in corporate and governmental positions of power as self-serving, without regard for others and the consequences of their actions. It is little wonder why we have a crisis of leadership. It’s everyone for themselves without regard for those they are appointed to serve. Subsequently, we see a crisis in confidence in these individuals, as noted by Eldeman’s survey.
Q: How would the great leaders that you surveyed respond to this crisis of confidence?
Bednarz: The great leaders I researched developed strong emotional bonds of loyalty, trust, respect and credibility with their employees, investors, suppliers, communities and a host of other constituencies. They were able to balance the needs of each of these groups, without sacrificing the needs of others. They had faith in the people they served, and this is reflected in the wiliness of these constituencies to eagerly believe in them and to loyally follow where they led them.
Q: Beyond the obvious benefits of loyalty, how did the great leaders you researched profit from it?
Bednarz: The emotional bonds forged by the great leaders paid dividends over time. For instance, when George Westinghouse faced financial difficulties during the Financial Panic of 1907, his employees sacrificed for him. They made personal contributions for him to save Westinghouse Electric. In another instance, Fred Smith saw his employees volunteer their time to help handle an onslaught of packages received by FedEx during the UPS strike in 1997. Herb Kelleher at Southwest Airlines has driven these attitudes deep into the company’s culture.
Q: In the introduction to your book you stated, “We stand at a critical moment in history for great leadership. The door of opportunity is wide open for us to those who desire to rise above the fray. History shows that many individuals have assumed the mantle of leadership, often not without experiencing painful failures and stifling adversities. Their actions and examples provide clear pathways to follow. This book is designed to show you the way.” Why do you think today’s leaders should look to examples of great leadership in the past?
Bednarz: America, if not the world is crying out today for ethical and strong leadership, especially since the world appears to be spinning into chaos. History has repeatedly demonstrated that great leaders emerge from difficult times. Many of the leaders focused upon in my book Great! have emerged from similar circumstances, If leaders today follow their examples and diligently study how they did it, there are many lessons that can be transferred into action that are able to transform individuals into great leaders.
Q: If you could condense the message of your book into one or two short sentences for this audience, what would you they be?
Bednarz: Two words: Leadership matters. This is true, whether as a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, or as the president of the local PTA. Great leaders can emerge at any level of an organization, at any time, and in every field. Each has the ability to make a difference in the lives of the people they lead and serve.
Q: Thank you for your time today.
Bednarz: My pleasure.
Timothy F. Bednarz, Ph.D. | Author | Publisher | Majorium Business Press
Author of Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It (Finalist – 2011 Foreword Reviews‘ Book of the Year)
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