The Best Leaders Model Their Stated Priorities

Leaders Model Stated Priorities

Everyone is a boss-watcher. “Other people take their cue from the leader—not from what the leader says, but what the leader does,” says Colin Powell.

The leader is always in a glass house. People listen to the words, but what really interests them is what the boss does. People carefully track what questions he asks, what reports she asks for and reads, what meeting agenda priorities he sets, what resources she allocates, whom he criticizes, what thrills or angers her, whom he lauds, whom she promotes, whom he assigns to which project, and whom she visits and hangs out with.

People observe these things, and then, regardless of the boss’s words they draw conclusions about what’s really important, what’s truly urgent, what must be the top priorities, and who the leader is. When the leader’s words and deeds match, the leader’s credibility and influence go up in their eyes. When they don’t, credibility and influence are diminished. This is such a powerful and predictable process that leaders have no neutral actions. Each action or decision has great symbolic impact.

Too often, leaders aren’t aware that they’re being observed, and that colleagues have long memories. Some leaders think nothing about promising something and not delivering, or stating a priority and not “living” it. If an executive states that being customer-centric is a priority, but he is not spending more time with customers, then he’s not walking the talk He’s not doing the work of leadership. If she doesn’t personally insure that capital allocation, performance metrics, sourcing, logistics, scheduling, information systems, and compensation reflect a customer-centric priority, she’s not walking the talk She’s not doing the work of leadership. In both cases, it’s not likely that innovative, proactive customer-centric work will be done.

In contrast, effective managers know that their glass house offers enormous leverage in boosting performance, as well as their own credibility and influence—but only if they become the ultimate role model. For example, if a leader talks about honesty, candor, open-door communication, collaboration, or risk-taking, then that leader more than anyone else—must model and support those virtues. The leader must not only be honest and candid, but also ensure that employees who do the same are properly acknowledged, rewarded, and protected. When people see these actions, they know that they can count on their leader, and are more likely to cultivate those virtues themselves. The leader’s power and integrity are enhanced in the process.

Effective managers become the ultimate role model

How powerful is the “glass house effect”? Well, consider how it might be applied to a current vexing national problem. Over the past 24 months the integrity and liquidity of our capital markets have been assailed by a wave of scandals revolving around fraudulent financial reporting, sleight-of-hand accounting, piracy in the executive suites, and incestuous self-serving relationships among accountants, consultants, analysts, and investment bankers. The effect not only extends the economic recession, but it also breeds doubt and cynicism about the market system.

When President Bush spoke about corporate malfeasance, about righting wrongs and putting the bad guys away, few question his sincerity. But to take advantage of the “glass house” effect, he could use the “bully pulpit” of his office to do the following:

  • Talk frankly about honesty, full disclosure and transparency in reporting.
  • Decry phony revenues, bogus earnings, spinning IPO’s, cozy analyst investment banker relationships, and risk-free executive compensation.
  • Cite high-profile examples of greed and deceit, express serious concern, and offer inspirational alternatives.
  • Refer to abuses in governance and underscore the fiduciary responsibility.
  • Discuss accountability for illegal activity, including civil litigation, criminal prosecution, and imprisonment.
  • Tell new SEC head William Donaldson to aggressively pursue corporate corruption and market abuses to avoid conflict-of-interest charges.
  • Tell us that his new team will be packed with people of impeccable independence, integrity, and competence.
  • Raise the SEC’s annual funding as the agency copes with many cases. Leaders define their agenda by the resources they allocate to it.
  • Insist that the agency aggressively pursue corporate corruption.

Great leaders mobilize people to do extraordinary things with simple ideas. During the 20 years that Jack Welch transformed GE, he was only committed to a few strategic priorities: globalization, total quality, boundaryless, de-bureaucratization, and e-commerce. None of these initiatives were new. Many companies had similar objectives. But Welch demonstrated a fanatic obsession with driving each initiative, and held his managers accountable for achieving results. GE people knew where their CEO stood. Welch’s approach was aligned with Powell’s advice: “Figure out what is crucial, and stay focused” When people see that resolve, they “get” what their mindsets and behaviors ought to be.

Great leaders clearly state their principles and goals and follow through. They live the principles, own the goals, and ensure that everyone is aware of it. If you’re a leader, learn to use your visibility to your advantage.

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