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Q & A: Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

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Timothy F. Bednarz, Ph.D. - Author - Great! What Makes Leaders Great

Timothy F. Bednarz, Ph.D. – Author – Great! What Makes Leaders Great

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.

Read a Free Chapter of Great! What Makes Leaders Great

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)
Linkedin | Facebook | Twitter | Web| Blog | Catalog |800.654.4935 | 715.342.1018

Copyright © 2013 Timothy F. Bednarz, All Rights Reserved

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You Are Judged By The Actions You Take

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Herb Kelleher - Southwest Airlines  (Alex Wong - Getty Images)

Herb Kelleher – Southwest Airlines (Alex Wong – Getty Images)

Of all the leaders surveyed, the great ones were individuals who consistently displayed their integrity and character. No matter what happened in their lives: adversity, controversies, failure and defeat, their character shined through. It established deep personal credibility with each of their constituencies, as well as all others that came into contact with them.

First and foremost, leaders are judged by the actions they take. Today’s high profile leaders are prominently visible to all of their key constituencies. They make speeches and presentations to employees, shareholders, financial analysts, and the public in general.

Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines) exemplifies this. “He’s totally true to himself and totally consistent between his private life and his public life. He’s totally consistent between his public speeches and his private speeches. You could look at a speech that Herb gave to the annual shareholders meeting of 2002 and compare it to his message to the field in 1992 and compare it to a letter to employees in 1982 and find tremendous consistency in terms of adherence to core values. So the absolute adherence to extraordinarily high professional principles of ethical conduct and fair dealing, is just remarkable over time. So he built up a reservoir of credibility not only among employees but other people.”[1]

Many leaders may sound impressive, but simultaneously undermine their credibility since their actions fail to mirror their words. In some instances, leaders’ actions contradict their company’s mission statement, resulting in confusion within their organization. In either case, their personal actions become corrosive to the organizational culture, as well as their own individual credibility.

As a high profile leader, Carly Fiorina’s (Hewlett Packard) actions were highly scruntized and undermined her credibility. “Fiorina came in with a mandate of change, but didn’t make any effort to build trust between herself and the company. Indeed, she sullied her image by exalting herself without regard to her employees’ reactions. Buying a personal jet in front of a distrustful and alienated workforce is one example. Freezing employee salaries while giving herself and her executive ilk bonuses is another. Doing these things in light of nearly 18,000 employee dismissals (2003) is just plain callous.”[2]

Leaders’ actions set the tone for their organization, whether they realize it or not. They can either inspire or generate resentment in their employees. Fred Smith (FedEx) inspired his organization by setting a tone where all his employees felt they could share in the success of the company. He stated, “One of the biggest principles is that you’ve got to take action. Most large organizations reach a static point. They cannot take any action, because there are all types of barriers to doing so. There are institutionalized barriers that weren’t there when the company was considerably smaller. What changes is your knowledge and your appreciation of how to deal with those institutional barriers, to eliminate them or use them to your advantage in achieving those changes. There are myriad number of changes that have to take place in the management style for the company to continue growing.”[3]

“’Andy [Grove][Intel] has always been a teacher – often by example,’ says Ron Whittier, senior vice president in charge of content development… Yet I don’t think he wants to be remembered as a great visionary – but as someone who made things happen and created a great company.’”[4]

All constituencies expect leaders to be fair, just and consistent. Any perception of cronyism and the use of internal politics to develop an advantage for one individual or group generates unintended consequences, as these policies and actions are replicated at lower levels. Yet, for certain types of leaders, potential gains are too tempting not to employ these practices. Their focus on personal gain, however, becomes transparent to the rest of the organization. This destroys trust and channels of openness and honesty throughout the company. Fredrick Joseph (Drexel Burnham) created a dysfunctional culture when he ignored the unethical practices and securities violations of high-powered Michael Milken, and his creation of the junk bond business. The insider-trader scandals surrounding Milken ultimately led to the largest bankruptcy in Wall Street history at that time.

These actions hamper leaders’ abilities to instill their ideas, beliefs and values in others, and significantly hinder them when communicating sweeping strategies that are needed to move organizations forward. Rather than unite different factions, they splinter any existing unity, as different groups jockey for position. Leaders in this position typically tend to use their authority and power in a repressive rather than productive manner. It saps the company’s available resources and diminishes its productivity.

A notable and well-publicized example of this practice is Al Dunlap (Sunbeam). “In Dunlap’s presence, knees trembled and stomachs churned. Underlings feared the torrential harangue that Dunlap could unleash at any moment. At his worst, he became viciously profane, even violent. Executives said he would throw papers or furniture, bang his hands on his desk, and shout so ferociously that a manager’s hair would be blown back by the stream of air that rushed from Dunlap’s mouth. “Hair spray day” became a code phrase among execs, signifying a potential tantrum.”[5]

My research of some of the poorest performing leaders substantiated that many also made questionable and highly risky financial decisions that placed their companies at risk, and placed the well being of shareholders far above the interests of their customers.

“In the service of a quick buck, he [Al Dunlap – Sunbeam] imposed brutal pressure on honest people, placing their careers, incomes, health insurance, and pensions at stake. He made impossible, irrational demands that were ruinous to the long-term prosperity of companies. The leadership style he practiced was inconsistent with good business, thoughtful management, a strong economy….”[6]

Jon Huntsman (Huntsman Chemical) observed. “People often offer as an excuse for lying, cheating, and fraud that they were pressured into it by high expectations or that “everyone does it.” Some claim that it is the only way they can keep up. Those excuses sound better than the real reasons they choose the improper course: arrogance, power trips, greed, and lack of backbone, all of which are equal-opportunity afflictions.”[7]

The great leaders were committed to others and demanded excellence from all. They forged building blocks of growth and were proactive as they mastered execution of their plans within all levels of their organization. They demanded accountability on all levels and did not delegate this responsibility. They held themselves equally accountable, and adhered to the same standards as were established for the lowest level employee. This typically appealed to their personal sense of fairness.

“More than anyone, leaders should welcome being held accountable. Nothing builds confidence in a leader more than a willingness to take responsibility for what happens during his watch. One might add that nothing builds a stronger case for holding employees to a high standard than a boss who holds himself to even higher ones.”[8]

These leaders were passionate, and demonstrated a high level of personal drive and resilience. These factors made it possible to build emotional connections with key constituencies, especially needed during difficult periods.

Finally, one of the most notable distinctions of great leaders was found in their restraint and self-control. It inspired confidence in all key constituencies. A key example of this trait was the composure and stature James Burke (Johnson & Johnson) displayed during the Tylenol scare. His actions are attributed to saving that brand and securing the company’s impeccable reputation.

[1] Yeh Raymond T. with Yeh Stephanie H., The Art of Business: In the Footsteps of Giants (Zero Time Publishing, 2004)
[2] Knufken, Drea, 10 Reasons People Hate Carly Fiorina (Business Pundit) June 18, 2008
[3] Hafner, Katie, Fred Smith: The Entrepreneur Redux (Inc. Magazine, June 1, 1984)
[4] Sheridan John H., 1997 Technology Leader of the Year Andy Grove: Building an Information Age Legacy (Industry Week, April 19-21, 2010)
[5] Byrne, John A., Chainsaw (Harper Business, 1999, 2003) p 353-354
[6] Gallagher Bill, Once a Bum, Always a Bum (Niagara Falls Reporter, January 29, 2002)
[7] Huntsman, Jon M., Winners Never Cheat Even in Difficult Times (Wharton School Publishing, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 2008) p 35
[8] Giuliani, Rudolph, Leadership (Hyperion, New York, 2002) p 70

Excerpt: 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 2011)

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)
Linkedin | Facebook | Twitter | Web| Blog | Catalog |800.654.4935 | 715.342.1018

Copyright © 2013 Timothy F. Bednarz, All Rights Reserved

Does Empathy Undermine Your Leadership Abilities?

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Leaders do have control over the actions, behaviors and decisions that influence and shape their personal credibility. This once again involves self-awareness as well as comprehensive critical thinking abilities to examine the consequences of both their long and short-term actions. All leaders have choices, but the right choices demand a leader’s willingness and acquiescence.

“Bill [William Hewett] and Dave [David Packard] could be gruff and demanding but were seen as compassionate at heart. They agonized over layoffs and, according to company lore, would apologize for angry outbursts. They created one of the most humane workplaces in the United States. The founders also served as models of integrity. HP products were expensive but they were dependable. Wall Street could trust the numbers that Hewlett and Packard presented to analysts.”[1]

My research substantiates that the great leaders were compassionate and displayed empathy. There is a story about George Westinghouse (Westinghouse Electric) conducting a tour of his factories with visitors. In the course of the tour, the group observed a young man stumbling and falling while carrying a large copper plate. As the group laughed at the young man’s predicament, Westinghouse walked over and in his business suit, kneeled down and assisted the young man.

Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines) has fostered compassion and empathy within his company. He took a personal interest in even the smallest events of his employees’ lives. Using their own initiative, his employees have in turn, routinely used voluntary payroll deductions to assist fellow employees with serious financial problems such as terminal illnesses.

In the quest for ever-increasing shareholder value, many contemporary leaders perceive empathy and compassion as a sign of personal weakness. Quite to the contrary, my research proves that the great leaders, especially those who were compassionate, were also strong leaders. There was nothing weak about them and their compassion and humanity didn’t diminish their performance. Most times it enhanced it.

An additional benefit the research revealed was that strong levels of compassion and empathy result in strong levels of trust and loyalty. Rather than diminishing shareholder value, the great leaders typically outperformed their competition. Howard Schultz (Starbucks) “explains how [employee] meetings help him lead a fast-growing $ 6.4 billion global company with 90,000 employees, 9,700 stores, and 33 million weekly customers. ‘People aren’t interested in how much you know… It’s how much you care.’”[2]

Jack Welch (General Electric) noted the value of a compassionate leader, when he said, “If you have everything else you need in terms of talent and skill, your humanity will come to be your most appealing virtue to an organization. Your team and your bosses will know who you are in your soul, what kind of people you attract, and what kind of performance you want from everyone. Your realness will make you accessible; you will connect and you will inspire. You will lead.”[3]

[1] Johnson Craig, The Rise and Fall of Carly Fiorina: An Ethical Case Study (Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, November 2008)

[2] Meyers, William, Conscious in a Cup, (U.S. News & World Report) October 31, 2005

[3] Welch Jack, Get Real, Get Ahead (Business Week) July 23, 2007

Excerpt: Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It (Majorium Business Press, 2011)

If you would like to learn more about the humanity, empathy, humility and compassion of the great American leaders, through their own inspiring words and stories, refer to Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It. It illustrates how great leaders built great companies, and how you can apply the strategies, concepts and techniques that they pioneered to improve your own leadership skills. Click here to learn more.

Copyright © 2011 Timothy F. Bednarz All Rights Reserved

Written by Timothy F. Bednarz, Ph.D.

May 31, 2011 at 10:20 am

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