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Getting Real About ‘Strong’ Leaders

Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes. Jim Carey

Behind every great leader are subordinates rolling their eyes. Robert Hall

Believing in leadership is like believing in religion: if you expect perfection from those mortals who practice it, you will be mightily disappointed. The very need for strong leadership is an admission of human weakness – that unfortunately includes our leaders. Whether picking a President, company CEO or a mate as prospective parent of your children, we struggle to choose between strength and humility. Strength provides power for progress and for good but too much can beget a tyrant. Humility – weakness acknowledged – helps leaders admit when they need help or are off course, but too much invites bullying and inability to advance.

This year many top presidential candidates’ tone resembles a self-appointed dictator: Donald Trump can’t remember the last time he apologized; Hillary Clinton rolls toward a so-called royal coronation; Ted Cruz’s arrogance makes for strong enemies. Trump’s and Clinton’s disapproval ratings are north of 50 percent. When half your potential constituents are somewhere between disapproval and disdain, it is a heavy lift.

A look at business leadership trends is instructive.

Business Leadership vs. Political Leadership A recent trend among highly successful CEOs is greater humility. Emily Peck’s excellent piece captures how leadership is evolving: more introspective, less domineering, more concerned about building an excellent employee workplace, fewer celebrity CEOs. A recent survey by public relations firm Weber Shandwick of 1700 executives across the globe found that highly regarded CEOs are six times as likely to be considered humble compared to poorly regarded CEOs. Interestingly, the number of articles about “CEO humility” more than doubled in recent months compared to the last decade. What is the source of this shift – so counter to leadership stereotypes?

First, big data has improved the precision in valuing the impact of leadership on success and sustainability. Professor Dave Ulrich uses his Leadership Capital Index to estimate that investors base about 30 percent of their decision-making on the quality of a firm’s leadership. Think of that – in a company with a market valuation of $20 billion that means leadership is valued at around six billion dollars. For our U.S. government with annual expenditures of $3.8 trillion, the value of leadership would be in the hundreds of billions. The math confirms what we have long intuited – leadership really matters. Second, the demand for effective leadership exceeds available supply. Deloitte’s global 2015 survey found that the Leadership Capability gap increased in every region around the world. Edelman Trust reported in 2015 that trust in CEOs has fallen to 43 percent – down nine points since 2011. In spite of improved information, updated leadership methods, and executive development – in the eyes of those led – leaders have lost ground. Increasingly vulnerable CEOs such as Marissa Mayer, CEO at Yahoo, are held accountable by Wall Street for declines in employee approval; hers fell from 99 percent when hired to 73 percent today.

Third, generational change is making new demands on leaders. In most organizations, leaders face two very divergent work groups – older Gen X and Baby Boomers versus younger Millennials. Often their priorities, values, and work habits are very different and leaders get caught in the cross-fire of those conflicts. Older leaders are struggling to gain commitment and engagement from younger workers who value greater sense of purpose, transparency, work-life balance and authenticity. “Treatment of employees” is number one in Millennials view of “being a leader,” while “strong financial results” is near the bottom.

The point: there have never been fewer legitimate reasons for leaders to be arrogant or cocky. Yet in contrast, the surprising emergence of Donald Trump as the leading Republican candidate has been a case study in brashness, confidence and celebrity. Matthew MacWilliams’ survey found that Trump’s rise was driven by people inclined toward “authoritarianism” while “education, income, gender, age, ideology and religiosity had no significant bearing on a Republican voter’s preferred candidate.”

Why are citizens favoring more authoritarian leadership when businesses are moving in the opposite direction and how should we respond?

True Leadership Strength for Our Time I believe it is less that constituents are moving in opposite directions than the two groups are at different stages of rejecting traditional leadership. In politics you hear that voters are angry but constituents in both business and politics have lost confidence and distrust leadership unlike before. It is tempting to seek powerful, controlling leaders in support of our viewpoint. David Harsanyi article title captures it: “Admit It. You Just Want Your Own Dictator.” However dictators don’t listen very well, are unpredictable and invariably wind up inflicting abuse on something or someone we hold sacred. In business, boards and leaders are coming to grips with the limitations of dictatorial and controlling leadership. It can work great in the short-term and sometimes longer for truly brilliant leaders like the late Steve Jobs at Apple. But as organizations battle for top talent and engage in prolonged battles for scale and sustained success, the authoritarian model is losing steam.

This evolution beyond authoritarian leadership invites us to redefine “strong” leadership in three ways. Strong is humble: Humility is not the absence of strength or confidence. Rather, it is the confidence to invite dissent, risk making decisions, admit being wrong, and change directions. Humble leaders make space for others to be better, more engaged, powerful, and accountable. Humble leaders seek doubt where there is certainty, opposition where there is faux-unity and faith where there is doubt. Strong is empowering: Empowering leaders multiply power by purposefully giving it away. So many organizations suffer “disempowerment fatigue,” the weariness of big responsibility, little autonomy and unrelenting bureaucracy. Perhaps human energy and passion is the most precious organizational resource; leaders either increase or drain the supply.

Strong is respectful of differences: Innovation and unification come from divergent points of view and they are most productive when invited and respected – like Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet: Team of Rivals. Because differences are painful and time-consuming, organizations tend toward what is easy over what is effective.

Becoming a stronger leader means getting real – acknowledging weakness.

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