I’ve spent the last few days trying to make sense of a couple of things that happened within the same 24 hour period.
First was my response to the PR announcement about my role as a track leader at RecruitFest! in Boston in October. It made me really uncomfortable. The announcement made me sound like the leader of the free world of HR – which I’m not. I know we’re trying to drive attendance, and I know there are some folks who think I have important things to say (and I’m grateful for that), but I was uncomfortable being lauded at such great lengths.
Not that I haven’t accomplished some pretty terrific things in my leadership career. I have. But. I didn’t accomplish any of them in a vacuum. I always had a team of exceptional colleagues who worked with me and alongside me to accomplish great things. It’s called being a leader. And I think that – especially today – successful leaders need equal doses of healthy egos and equally healthy humility. The healthy ego part is the part that makes us think we can be leaders. That we do know where to go and how to get there. The healthy humility part is the part that makes us human; that makes us authentic; that enables us to engage our teams in the work and vision for the future. And keeps us grounded in the knowledge that we’re not terribly unique and can be replaced at any time.
So when I read with sadness about Mark Hurd’s dismissal from HP I thought to myself, “here’s another leader who got the humility part of leadership wrong.” Because it’s the lack of humility that tells leaders the rules don’t apply to them. It’s the lack of humility that leads them to believe the stuff their PR departments publish.
By all accounts Mark Hurd was thought to be a good guy. Fudging expense reports isn’t on the same level as Charlie Rangel’s alleged improprieties, or Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling’s criminal looting of Enron, or Eliot Spitzer’s total moral collapse – or is it? I think the case could be made that fudging expense reports is the conscious choosing of ego over humility that says: I’m more important than anyone else; what I want is more important than anything else. More important than being honest; more important than my integrity; more important than the the organization I lead. Even if he hadn’t been caught, wasn’t this the first step to a total disregard of the humility required to be an authentic leader?
It seems to me that too many leaders (in business as well as politics) start to believe their own press and then start to believe that they’re so special/so effective/so beloved/so famous that the rules don’t apply to them. Humility is subsumed by ego and the ability to lead evaporates.
So the question remains: why do so many powerful and effective leaders start to believe their own press when the consequences are so clear?
The learning for me as I look for my next leadership job is this: I don’t believe my own press today and I won’t believe it tomorrow. I promise.
(But still come to RecruitFest!. It will be awesome!)
26 responses to “Don’t believe your own press!”
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Great post! In Athletics we always say Character is what you do when no one can see what you do!
Unfortunately, entrepreneurs and leaders at a high level have one thing in common – they rarely hear the word ‘no’. As Jennifer McClure accurately points out, people at this level are rarely questioned, publicly or privately and few have a ‘boss’ relationship like the general rank and file do. This lack of questioning or challenging is one of the biggest problems in organisations today and is driven largely by fear of doing so. This leads to 3 distinctly bad problems for the leaders and their organisations:
1) As leaders, they are ill informed. This lack of ability to be questioned and or lack of ability to actually listen to what people are telling you means that they often only hear 90% of the truth or the real deal. Subordinates often hold back the 10% or more through fear of upsetting the leader or bringing criticism upon themselves. Without the whole picture, you cant make accurate assessments which leads to poor decision making.
2) Subordinates are driven to putting in place ‘quick’ solutions to problems, instead of spending the time to make thorough analysis and proper implementation of solutions. The drive to fix the problem to ‘satisfy the boss’ overtakes the need to do things properly. Again this leads to poor decisions and poor solutions.
3) They believe their own BS. Too many leaders end up believing their own hype and own internal voice, simply because they hear no different from anyone else. They are surrounded by ‘yes’ men and women who prefer to let the leader have their head and run the gauntlet of avoiding blame when the s**t hits the fan at the later stage.
In all of the examples quoted above, particularly the Enron type scenario, the power of the leader over the organisation and their own interests being served over those of the wider employee group were to blame. It is a fundamental we must address if we are to avoid this scenario being repeated over and over again, as it currently is.
Nice post China!
You’ve obviously given this a lot of thought! I especially agree with points 1 and 2. A savvy CEO will understand that they rarely get the whole unvarnished, agenda-free truth. I tried to remember this when I was the ultimate organization leader and even when you know, it’s hard to keep it mind all the time…
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Wow! Thanks for the shoutout in your great blog. I’m honored.
China, I think your perspective is right on. Leadership is all about balance. A leader who allows his/her unhealthy ego dominate their leadership style often leads to an unproductive workforce. At the other extreme, a leader who is too concerned with being liked doesn’t receive respect.
I get a lot of inspiration from movies. The movie Master and Commander starring Russel Crowe has a scene in it where the Captain (Crowe) is talking to one of his newest leaders on the ship who is struggling with the crew. It’s one of the best synopsis of leadership I’ve seen.
PS – One of the reasons so many admire and respect you is because you have the balance.
I think you’re right, Alicia, the balance is critical. Not easy. But critical.
When you become the top leader in an organization for the first time one of the things you quickly understand (or at least I understood it) is that from now on it will be difficult to get the unvarnished truth about anything. Because you’re the leader, your team will be inclined to try to figure out what you want to hear and tell you that. Or they’ll be managing their personal or professional agenda in every interaction with you. It’s very difficult to get the truth told to the CEO. That’s why having a trusted lieutenant is so critical. Someone who has your back and who will also report the facts without agenda. Those folks are worth their weight in gold.
I think there was probably a lil more then just expense reports happening there. However I am sure he has his own golden parachute on the way down. Sad to see such a great career go down over a reportedly small thing. It is not as bad as some scandals but a scandal none the less!
It’s the small things that trip us up, don’t you think? And if not caught or addressed, those small things can become big things. It’s actually heartening to see the HP board step up so decisively and stand for principle instead of overlooking bad behavior because the stock price doubled in the 5 years he was CEO.
HP making big bucks – 20k in unethical expenses = doesn’t matter, you’re gone!
China–How long have I been calling you HR Royalty–I know you are a humble human being which endears you to me even more. You have a history of empowering, and championing the greatness in those around you.
I will never forget how when you took my call, spent an hour with me on the phone, and then helped me with my resume. Words cannot adequately describe the depth of gratitude in my heart. China, in addition, you encouraged me with my spirits were flagging.
I am personally proud to see you handle your current transition with dignity and grace. You are the Grace Kelly of Human Resources. Ok, enough hero worship. I think you are truly special in how you bless the lives of others.
Recruitfest, and SmartBrief are lucky to have you.
Margo Rose, M.Ed. HRD
Founder & CEO of HireFriday 2.0
Margo: you are way too kind!
That was such a concise description yet so many don’t it!! Great job, China!!
Thanks, Grace. It’s a mystery to me why so many don’t get it!
China you’ve nailed one of the most delicate balancing acts of great leadership – confidence and humility. Abraham Lincoln is my role model and leader crush on this one. Imagine one of your appointees saying they did not support your campaign and will resign their post if they see the reasons for same in your new role. Then you respond by saying, “Please do not tender your resignation if this should happen. Instead, if you should see me behaving in that way, please come to me first so that I might become more aware and learn from you how to be different.” Wouldn’t that be a breath of fresh air. So, YES, to that balance – confident enough to ask, humble enough to ask.
I absolutely agree with your leader crush on Abraham Lincoln! Great example of what I’m talking about. Thanks for pointing it out!
I agree with @Jennifer McClure. There was likely more to the story. Like getting Al Capone for tax evasion because you can’t make anything else stick. Well except Al got a stay in Alcartaz and Hurd gets a 30+ million dollar golden parachute. So its mostly the same…
Humility is an essential trait in a good leader, a quality on the few times we have spoken in person, you’ve shown in spades.
Hi Corey. Thanks for commenting. Thanks for your kind words. At least the HP board moved quickly in dealing with the situation. The lack of an apparent successor is troubling, however. HP has a phenomenal HR group led by a truly world class CHRO. I’ll bet she’s putting in some long hours right about now….
China, thanks for the RecruitFest shoutout! We try to completely embarrass all track leaders. Tomorrow’s track leader actually invented the cure for cancer and will be announcing it at RecruitFest.
I think business leaders just start to identify with the company and then see the company accomplishments as their own. (cough.. Steve cough Jobs.. cough, cough.)
And to Jennifer’s point, I would agree, this kind of stuff can’t be learned. Humility and values have more to do with family and upbringing than anything else.
Again, I know some folks who came out of families that weren’t that focused on character development who turned out pretty spectacularly. And we all know people who had every advantage who don’t get the concept of integrity. Nature or nuture or inate or learned? I’m thinking learned…
Ah determinism, this brings me back…My thought has always been that a good upbringing (not one of material advantage but one somehow centered around core values of kindness) usually works. And the flip-side (a poor upbringing without values/kindness) certainly doesn’t kill integrity and a lot of times, strengthens it.
I have no idea what makes people do what they do. I know that when hiring people or when evaluating leadership, integrity should make up about 95% of the grade.
I think everyone would say they agree with you that integrity should make up about 95% of the grade — but then they don’t follow through very often, do they? Makes you wonder….
I guess I’m a bit cynical to think that there’s probably much more to the story leading HP to taking action other than fudged expense reports. Or maybe I’ve been involved in a few too many of these investigations to know that they can get pretty complex… 🙂
Unfortunately, I think it’s pretty easy for leaders at this level to begin to believe their own press and/or start to think the rules don’t apply to them – because many of the rules that apply to the masses often don’t apply to them. They’re catered to wherever they go. Other’s lives are disrupted to meet their schedules. People rarely question them publicly or even in private. And so on…
In my opinion, a humble nature is often something that comes from good upbringing (hey, some parents actually do get it right), but to stay humble at that level, it’s important to have people in their life that keep it real. Whether that’s a business colleague, an external coach, a family member or even a trusted executive assistant, everyone needs someone around them to remind them from time to time that they are human and/or to point out the slippery slope. My guess is that Mark Hurd didn’t have any of those people in his life – or dismissed them from it a long time ago.
And you are that awesome! So glad you’re coming to RecruitFest!
Thanks, Jennifer. I’m pretty sure there was more to it than expense report violations as well, but I think it’s instructive to see what thinking you’re better than everyone creates. I’m pretty sure humility can be learned — but maybe only the hard way, if you know what I mean. My experience as a leader has shown me that when I put myself first my decisions are not as effective as when I put myself last. Your idea of having a trusted person around to keep you grounded is a good one. Of course, listening on the part of the leader would be required for that to work…