Last week, I met a remarkable woman, a newly appointed CEO. We were discussing her institution, a non-profit healthcare provider serving the underprivileged community in the inner city. She confessed that she and her management team were struggling to re-define their business strategy. When I asked her about the leadership culture, she professed that she was proud of the culture that her team embraced.
I probed a bit and she told me (I’m paraphrasing): “we get together on a regular basis to talk about what we’re doing and we remind each other that our mission is more important than our individual needs.”
It’s often said that culture starts at the top and that’s how it happens.
Much has been written about how the 300 pounders in theMiami Dolphins locker room treat one another. The pundits, including a lot of league veterans, have told us that the team’s leadership has failed if they didn’t know what was going on. Culture starts at the top after all. But, while the criticism is well aimed, it strikes me that the pundits deserve a 15-yard penalty for “piling on”.
The ex-players and coaches and the sports journalists from ESPN and other news outlets are part of the community – the league, the veterans, the media – that benefits from the NFL’s continued success. It’s in their best interest to describe the event as an isolated incident and blame local management.
We’ve seen it many times – Nixon’s White House, Penn State and, perhaps the most egregious of all, the Vatican.
|Nixon addressing the press|
Cover-ups are instinctive. Self-deception is the rule not the exception, which is why so many decision makers behave in ways that will likely hurt them and others in the long haul. It’s why so many students and alumni of Penn State came to Joe Paterno’s defense. It’s why so many Catholics continued to admire Pope John Paul II even after it was revealed that the church had covered up the child molestation scandal for decades.
Cover-ups are strategic too. Those conspiring at Penn State were rational in their belief that adverse publicity would destroy careers and the reputation of their institution. Unfortunately, it’s not unlike low interest loan. Sooner or later there’s a balloon payment due.
In my days as a naval officer and as a midshipman at the Naval Academy, we often debated whether leaders are born or made. It’s a variation on nature vs. nurture, often discussed in child rearing.
There are people who are natural born leaders. There is an indefinable aura about them. Political and military leaders like Colin Powell and Nelson Mandela come to mind. Business leaders like Meg Whitman and Steve Jobs also fit the mold.
But, many good or even great leaders lack charisma. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates is a great example. A quiet even unassuming man, he gave up an easy glide into retirement at a Texas university to help President Bush restore leadership and integrity to the Pentagon. And, he stayed on when asked by President Obama to ease the transition to a new administration in the midst of two wars. Clearly, he viewed the mission as more important than his individual needs.
And, it’s fair to say that not all charismatic people are great leaders as anyone who has read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs knows by now.
Leadership skills and behavior can be learned. And, it’s important to learn those skills as you grow and develop in your life and career. You need to know what to do, how to respond, how to lead before the crisis hits. In the end, you are what you do, especially in the midst of chaos. And, what the conspirators in Washington, University Park and Rome have done is unworthy of anyone who aspires to leadership.
|Pope John Paul II|
As for Miami, time will tell. But, the central conundrum of crisis management is that doing the right thing doesn’t necessarily save the institution or the people running it. That’s why it’s so hard for top management to come clean. What would have happened to the administrators at Penn State, the top guys in Nixon’s White House or the Pope’s Cardinals and Bishops if they had done the right thing?
They would not have been lauded for their honesty. Whistle blowers usually don’t fare well in modern society.
Our psychological need to think well of ourselves combined with our instinct for self-preservation makes it much more difficult to do what’s right, what’s best for the institution we represent.
That’s why it’s so rare that we meet someone who places mission above his or her personal needs.
WHO WILL LEAD?