Paul Witkay in Smart Business: “Trust and Authenticity Must Be Part of the Equation”

March 02, 2016

I’ve worked closely with hundreds of business leaders and I strongly believe that leadership matters — a lot! So, you might imagine my surprise when I saw the latest book from Jeffrey Pfeffer, a highly respected leadership author and Stanford professor, was titled Leadership BS.

Pfeffer researched a wide range of leadership programs that offered inspiring stories of heroic leaders and espoused the virtues of trust, authenticity, humility and care for others.

Yet Pfeffer observes that companies have spent billions on leadership programs without the ability to determine whether they had any positive impact on results.

While he believes that the virtues of trust, authenticity, humility and caring are very admirable, he also describes numerous examples where they can be counterproductive if employed at the wrong times or in the wrong circumstances.

I agree with Pfeffer that programs that teach “feel good” qualities and don’t demonstrate measurable results deserve to be challenged. It is important, however, to consider the differences between employees and CEOs.

Employees are typically interested in career development and may be passed over if they exhibit too much humility or caring for others. The hard truth is that following the Golden Rule may not be the most effective way for employees to advance their careers.

CEOs, on the other hand, have a very lonely job. Most CEOs I know think about ways to improve their businesses on a 24/7 basis. If CEOs told their employees or board members about every idea that went through their brains, they would drive their employees crazy.

More often than not, leaders who build sustainably successful organizations for the long term exhibit not only the qualities of trust and authenticity, but humility and caring as well. Let’s explore these virtues:

Trust is a virtue that is difficult to earn and easy to lose. It’s important for leaders to be careful to not make any commitments they are not able to fulfill. Although CEOs cannot talk openly about everything they know, others should be able to trust that what they do say is true.

In his new book, Pfeffer provides numerous examples of how it can be harmful for leaders to discuss their feelings — I agree. Leaders are human and have doubts and uncertainty like everyone else, yet leaders must appear confident or their organizations will experience fear and progress can stall.

Clearly, CEOs who lack humility — such as Larry Ellison of Oracle, Steve Jobs of Apple and Jack Welch of GE — have built highly successful companies However, Jim Collins’ research in his best-selling book Good to Great found that most companies that have succeeded for the long term were built by humble “Level 5” leaders who shared the credit with their teams.

Caring for others
CEOs need to balance the needs of their stakeholders: customers, employees, shareholders and the communities they operate in. Most leaders have a philosophy regarding which stakeholders are most important. Some care most about providing financial returns for their shareholders while others believe that happy employees drive customer satisfaction that results in strong financial performance. Either way, great CEOs think of those besides themselves.