I recently was interviewed by a major network asking whether Sen. Barack Obama’s chances for the White House could be damaged by the incident involving the use of a logo resembling the presidential seal that appeared on the podium he used at a Chicago event. Well, sure, his chances could be damaged, but just how damaged has a lot to do with how hyped up the story becomes in the news cycle and how much his staff learns from the incident.
Like all senior leaders in public service, business, sports, nonprofits and entertainment, Obama lives in a fishbowl of continuous public scrutiny. For high-profile leaders, every move is under the microscope. One of the first and most disconcerting things senior executives learn is that people always are watching them and making all manners of attribution regarding their actions, mannerisms and trappings.
In the greater scope of things, the seal is a minor issue, and the story probably will go away soon. Obama probably had nothing to do with its design or even the decision to use it, but like any leader, he bears the responsibility for issues such as this, no matter how trivial.
This situation illustrates a couple of bigger leadership issues: One is the general issue of image vs. authenticity, and the other is the specific issue of a leader’s image with respect to arrogance and narcissism vs. humility.
With ubiquitous media coverage, all leaders constantly face image-based assessments whether they like it or not. Perceptions are real in their consequences, even if the perceptions are dead wrong. Leaders are forced to pay attention to their images, not because they want to, but because doing otherwise can compromise their ability to lead in a way that serves the best interests of the organization, its employees, its customers and its stakeholders. In the best of all worlds, a leader’s publicly held image is consistent with his or her privately held values. These leaders are authentic, and they hold values that evoke a sense of confidence in their competence and character.
When it comes to leadership, the first thing that followers ask, consciously or unconsciously, is, “Can I trust you?” In a 2001 study called “The Voice of the Leader” by the Corporate Leadership Council, 88,000 businesspeople across industries and across global cultures said the qualities they most wanted in a leader were integrity and authenticity.
We hear a lot about arrogant business leaders but not so much about the humble ones because they enjoy a lower profile than their more flamboyant and highlighted peers. Who has not heard the story of former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski’s “business expense” charges to the stockholders for a $6,000 shower curtain and a $2.1 million birthday party for his wife? We also know that ex-WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers thought $12 billion of expenses could be accounted for as capital investments. But what about the selfless business leaders who hold values greater than their self-interest? Why not learn from the positive exemplars?
I have had the privilege of working for a few of these inspiring leaders during my career. One of them was Skip LeFauve. He was the CEO who launched Saturn Corp. Working for him gave me the chance to see what a psychologist would call “mutuality” up close. One of the hallmarks of achieving rapport with other human beings is the authentic and consistent demonstration of genuine regard for them. LeFauve had it in abundance. Whether talking with a shop worker or the chairman of General Motors — and I was with him when he did both — he treated each with the same degree of courtesy, respect and, when appropriate, firm disagreement.
Another example was Bob Galvin, former CEO and chairman of Motorola. Galvin had the humility to listen carefully to employees far less experienced and knowledgeable than him, and to learn from them. His active listening could not be faked, and it engendered fierce loyalty and respect from his people.
People rarely take the time to get all the facts. Unfortunately, they operate on sound bites and one-frame storyboards. Substance clearly is the first priority for a leader, but appearance matters too. Leaders who lack the appearance of competence rarely get the chance to show that they have it. We are all blessed when a leader has both. Leaders like Galvin and LeFauve have demonstrated that it’s possible. Here’s hoping the same is true for our elected leaders.