How to walk the talk of leadership
How to walk the talk of leadership
Gerard H. Seijts and Hon. David Kilgour
June 20, 2007
Leadership is about winning the trust and respect of key stakeholders, including employees, customers and shareholders. These are the people who should take the time to evaluate the character, competence and commitment of those who are -- or aspire to be -- leaders. Any time there is a gap between what leaders say and what they do, their credibility suffers. Under tough conditions, leaders must show principled leadership. If not, the currency of leadership depreciates, and people become disillusioned and cynical.
We offer five prescriptions to help leaders " walk on water" as opposed to swimming or sinking:
Executives should be model citizens
On retiring as chief executive of Poole ConstructionLtd. (now PCLConstruction Ltd.), John Edward Poole and his brother sold their majority stake to the employees rather than accept the highest offer. In the three decades following that, he and his wife gave tens of millions of dollars to a host of cultural, educational, social and environmental institutions. When Poole died earlier this year, columnist Paula Simons noted, "[ John Poole] believed that every man owed a duty to his fellow citizens. He understood that living in a city isn't just about occupying space--it's about participating in the life of a community. It's about taking responsibility for the future."
Stick to what you're good at
Countless businesses have been harmed when their leadership team ventured into new markets without adequately understanding their circle of competence. On the otherhand, Southwest Airlines' returns to shareholders the past 30 years have outdone even those of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway. Both management and employees know what the airline is good at and stick to it: Low-cost reliable air transportation. The implication for principled leadership is to have a core set of convictions. Without that focus, leaders yield to all kinds of pressures and achieve little.
Have an inclusive corporate culture
Nucor Corp., an outperformer in the American steel industry and one of the most-admired U.S. organizations, is a good case study. In Jeremy J. Siegal's The Future for Investors, former chief executive F. Kenneth Iverson attributes most of the company's success to "... the consistency of our company and our ability to project its philosophies throughout the whole organization, enabled by our lack of layers and bureaucracy."
Every employee is a member of Nucor's team. The "no favourites" philosophy is demonstrated by giving employees the same amount of vacation days and insurance coverage, and no one gets a company vehicle, aircraft or assigned parking spot. The freedom to try new ideas gives Nucor a distinct advantage: a creative, get-it-done workforce.
Have sound whistle-blower protection
Sherron Watkins, the former Enron executive who first confronted Kenneth Lay, chief executive, about her suspicions of accounting improprieties, became a household name when her memos to Lay were leaked to the media. She protested Enron's accounting practices to other executives as early as 1996, but got nowhere. Nor was she afforded protection.
Organizations should have policies in place to protect whistle-blowers and ensure valid concerns are acted upon quickly. Whistle-blowers should be regarded as role models. And transparency should be considered a competitive weapon. Chief executives should speak out on public issues Canadian executives recently formed a task force to study how to best approach climate change -- but corporate leaders in Canada are slow compared with their counterparts in other countries. A recent Economist story said corporate America is now among the loudest voices calling for emission controls and other measures designed to reduce greenhouse gases.
For CEOs and senior leaders to speak effectively, they need the support of their board of directors; organizations should speak with one voice.
-Gerard H. Seijts is a professor of organizational behaviour at the Richard Ivey School of Business. David Kilgour, is a former Member of Parliament for the southeast section of Edmonton and a former Canadian Secretary of State for Africa and Latin America; and for Asia-Pacific.