Being in charge of a company does not make you a leader
By Ritch K. Eich
It’s been a bad year for some top business, media and political leaders.
Roger Ailes, the founder, former chairman and CEO of Fox News, was ousted after numerous complaints of sexual harassment surfaced. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned as head of the Democratic National Committee after a leak exposed efforts to sabotage Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign.
After intense pressure from lawmakers and shareholders, Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf stepped down amid a growing public outcry over high-pressure sales tactics. He previously was forced to give up $41 million in compensation after acknowledging that bank employees opened millions of accounts without authorization.
These are not exactly inspiring examples of leadership.
Both “leader” and “leadership” are words that are grossly over-used today to describe people who are in charge of something. These so-called leaders don’t innovate, wow anyone with their vision, or improve their cause — in fact, they don’t lead at all.
Real leaders accomplish meaningful goals that make a positive and lasting impact for their organizations or the constituents they serve. Real leaders have foresight, and their actions result in meaningful change. They act courageously to solve major challenges. They boldly seize opportunities to help others, sometimes going against their board, customers or the people who elected them. They develop and pursue innovative ideas and ensure they are executed well.
Max DePree, the famed CEO of Herman Miller, said it best: “To be a leader means having the opportunity to make a meaningful difference in the lives of those who permit us to lead.”
In my first book, “Real Leaders Don’t Boss,” I noted that authentic leaders — as opposed to synthetic bosses — aspire to do what’s right and to be a part of something that’s bigger than themselves.
Here are a few examples of leaders who exemplify real leadership:
1. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. Schultz has pledged $30 million to military and veterans’ causes, including the training and hiring of vets and research and treatment for brain injuries and PTSD. He also committed to adding 10,000 vets and military spouses to the Starbucks payroll. Schultz has been honored as one of the business community’s best and most ethical leaders and was on Fortune’s 2014 list of the “world’s 50 greatest leaders.” Early on, he offered medical insurance to part-time employees and he’s launched environmental and social projects. When Starbucks was criticized for unreasonable scheduling practices with their employees, the organization responded with an improved system.
2. University of Michigan’s Carol Hutchins is the winningest coach in NCAA softball history. Authentic, tough and honest, Hutchins knows how to bring out the best in her team, a critical trait of real leaders. She doesn’t apologize for being passionate about what she does, and has instilled this philosophy in those she coaches.
Hutchins knows that teams are made up of individuals that have a collective goal, as evidenced by her coaching style that respects individuality. Hutchins founded the Michigan Softball Academy in 2010 along with the program’s annual “Pink Game,” an event that raises money for the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer organization. Under her leadership, the Wolverines have raised nearly $750,000 for the American Cancer Society.
3. Aflac’s CEO and chairman, Dan Amos, has led the company for close to three decades. Amos is well-known for not only listening to his employees but also acting on their suggestions. During the banking and financial crisis that began in 2008, he gave up his bonus and golden parachute while other executives continued to reap rewards even though their companies — and employees — were suffering.
Amos has been at the forefront of Aflac’s reputation for corporate citizenship, civility and ethics, as well as its transparent approach to investor and shareholder relations.
Under his leadership, the organization has contributed more than $50 million to the Aflac Cancer Center and Blood Disorders Service of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and other programs around the world.
Make no mistake — real leaders are not perfect. They make mistakes. The difference is that they acknowledge their mistakes, correct them and commit to making things better beyond the next quarter.
Next time you hear someone call a boss, supervisor, politician or CEO a “leader,” ask yourself what that person has done that was lasting, meaningful and different.
Maybe this person isn’t really a leader but just the person in charge.
• Ritch K. Eich was president of Eich Associated, a former leadership and management consulting firm in Thousand Oaks.