Category: Leadership
Boom or bust? The Hero CEO

The new CEO has been appointed, brought in to turn around the ailing company. The Board are keen for results. Key Performance Indicators are set and the lure of a bonus thrown out.

Share prices have been in decline. The primary task is to arrest that trend, balance the budget and begin to make in-roads on the deficit. The stage is set for the Hero CEO. His ego is primed.

With an economic landscape changing before our very eyes, more and more Boards will be seeking the quick fix. Out with the old and in with the new. New strategy, new leader. The hero appointment is attractive. It has paid dividends (at least in the short-term), but at what expense?

When an organisation’s performance is poor, many leaders default to what they believe will yield quick, turn around results. They become punitive, seeking to control people through manipulation or coercion.
The Hero CEO approach rarely, if ever results in lasting positive change. Lasting change and more profound positive impact is achieved through the establishment and embedding of trust.

Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, and 40% less burnout (Zak, P).

The road to long-term success is often the narrow, more windy road, that takes time to navigate, but the rewards far out way the patience needed to get there.

There is a stark difference between the Hero CEO and the Servant Leader CEO. Once a person realises that trust is far more valuable than any bonus, the road is chosen and the transformation begins. But it is never an immediate transformation. It takes time, vulnerability and a willingness to let go of long held beliefs as the leader chooses to forego himself.

Take the first step. Hand back back the offer of a bonus. Never forsake what is right by putting your own selfish ambition above the needs of those you seek to serve. A quick turnaround will never pay long term dividends.

Great expectations: Lost or won?

I usually write from the perspective of the leader and not from one who is being led. We are all led by others, no matter what leadership position you are in, including me. So what happens when when trust in my leader is broken? What should be my response?

I know what it feels like when trust is broken. For me it begins with a feeling of disappointment, and if not fixed quickly, the feelings escalate to a deep hurt and even anger.

I could go through the 10 leadership practices that engender trust and point out which ones he/she failed to employ in his/her leadership of me.

I could let my feelings consume me and destroy any possibility for reconciliation.

I could continue to scrutinise my leader’s actions, looking for further confirmation of their ‘inadequacy’ to reinforce my disappointment and to build myself up by saying, ‘I’d never lead like that’.

I could respond with any one, or all of these, but ultimately, they aren’t really helpful. None will have a particularly positive impact on my wellbeing (which ultimately I am responsible for), nor will they have a positive impact on the organisation I work for.

As a follower I have a responsibility in what is a broken relationship. In the words of the wise “Trust Lady” Vanessa Hall, my expectations of my Leader have not been met. For me to trust someone I have to know that they care for me deeply. So, have I told them what my expectations of them as a leader are?

Truly great leaders get to know the people they lead so they can employ the appropriate leadership practice to engender each individual follower’s trust. But when a leader has responsibility for a lot of people, or the location of their office means that they rarely have an opportunity to get to know the people they lead, it is hard for them to know what a person’s expectations are.

When trust is broken, I could meet my leader and use the ‘I’ word in my sentences, “I am feeling…”, but what is more helpful is to say, “my expectations are… I need you to lead me like…”

Give your leader a chance. They aren’t mind readers. They don’t intend to be poor leaders, or mean to leave you feeling hurt and angry. True leadership is a relationship. If no one is following, the other isn’t leading.


Know your people, they are your bread and butter

I recently met a young restaurateur who, with his older brother had opened their first business, “The Wooden Horse.” They were 18months in and going well. He was talking to a group of budding entrepreneurs, sharing what he had learned from the experience.

For someone who is just 22 I was amazed at what he had learned about leadership in such a short space of time. As he shared the challenges of running a business he identified the appointment and management of staff as one of the most difficult.

He wisely said that staff are people, they are not inanimate objects. Every person is unique and brings with them to work their own story. Once he understood this he realised that, “every interaction with each individual staff member had to different because they all have their own unique personalities. A joke with one doesn’t work with the next. Know your people. They are your bread and butter.”

I was staggered by this young man’s wisdom. So many leaders never wake up to this seemingly obvious point. Instead, they rely too heavily on their own ‘expertise’, assuming that a ‘one-size fits all’ approach is best when leading a group of people because ‘they know best’. What this type of leader is actually saying is that it is ‘all about me’.

This young man had worked out that the way to get the very best from his staff is see each of them as individuals, to know them and adjust his behaviour to support them to achieve the goals of the organisation.

One of the most common questions I am asked when sharing the 10 key practices that build trust in leadership is, “which one is the most important?” No single leadership practice is more important than another because trust, like leadership, is a socially constructed phenomenon. It is all about the relationships we form and you cannot form those relationships if you first don’t know yourself, and then the people you seek to lead. Every person has their own life story.


What leadership lessons can we learn from Donald Trump?

Ironic really, that on 9/11 the improbable happened–Donald Trump was elected President of the United States of America. The result has left the world reeling. How did this man come from joke to reality? What leadership lessons can we learn from his election?

Ultimately leadership boils down to just two things: Vision and trust. Whether you agree with him or not, you cannot deny that Trump sold a vision:

“Let’s make America great again.”

Trump’s vision tapped into the hearts and minds of the average American, who, as a result of globalisation, had been left behind by progress. Unemployed, struggling to make ends meet, the average American was looking for someone to blame, and Trump gave it to them; he put words around their anger. His vision gave them hope.

What sets a leader apart from a manager is their ability to cast an enticing vision for the future. They are able to paint a compelling picture that people want to believe in. A great leader can imagine something different, something better, something that compels people to put in the extra effort to make a reality.

Hilter, like Trump, successfully painted a vision, but sadly, painted the vision on the failings of others. Both sold their visions not by celebrating the great achievements to date, but on the failings of their predecessors. They both identified who was to blame for the people’s predicament. “If elected I’m going to build a wall and I’m going to tear up the free trade agreements. I’ll get your jobs back.” The seeds of the vision they sold was anger, it was grown out of fear and when in full bloom, will generate hate.

The world has changed, and is changing at a rapid pace. Manufacturing jobs, no matter how high a tariff Trump puts on imports, aren’t coming back. Robotics and AI will make certain of that. The vision that Trump, and all our national leaders should be selling is one that recognises and acknowledges the good that has gone before, justifies the need for transformation, and is built on genuine hope for all peoples of our planet. Visions that are sold on the basis of fear and promulgate hate are never destined for success.

The question we are all asking now that Trump has been elected is, “can we trust him?” People will only be propelled towards the attainment of a vision if they trust their leader. Can Trump deliver on his vision and, “make America great again?” Will people put in the extra effort because they know it will create something better for everyone, or will Trump have resort to promulgating greater fear and hate to achieve his goals?


A political platform to restore our education system

The media is once again filled with the gloomy news of our failing Australian education system. The natural conclusion people reach is that teachers and schools are failing our kids. However, I would assert that teachers today have a far better understanding of teaching and learning and are working harder than ever before. So what is going on?

My proposition is that we are seeing a gradual decline of our western society, a ‘degeneration’, as Niall Ferguson author of the best seller of the same name, asserts; a degeneration of the foundational institutions that make, or made our society great.

I believe that our nation is lacking a clear vision. We have allowed the premise that, ‘our quality of living will see continual improvement if we strive for ongoing economic growth’ to be our key political priority for far too long. This is the philosophy that is failing us now.

If I were interested in a political career, this would be my political platform.

Set a clear vision for our nation: “to be a nation of innovators.”

All successful organisations, and countries for that matter, have a clear vision. Singapore set a clear vision two decades ago—just look at that nation now. Australia should capitalise on its strengths. We are more creative than most. We have the capacity to be the world’s leading innovators.

Underpin the vision with three clear values: family, equality, and education.

Each of these three values are interlinked. Strong families mean better relationships, with in turn produces a better value system and a more equal society, which in turn leads to better educational results. All three working together produce more satisfying and fulfilling lives.

Our nation has become more and more unequal. From the CEOs who earn millions in bonuses, to the inequity in salaries between the sexes, all of which are just plain wrong.

We need to make our nation more equal. There is plenty of evidence to show that the more equal a society is the stronger it is. Think Finland, or the ACT for that matter, which is remarkably equal compared to all the States and would be near the top of the education league tables if it were a country.

Make policies support the values and the attainment of the vision. Policies to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor and the sexes, and policies to strengthen the family unit. Encourage parents to choose who stays home to do the vital job of raising children during their formative years by ensuring equality of wages.

The pricing of housing also needs tackling within this value. Why does Australia have the third highest house price to income ratio in the world? Why is it that we think to be someone we have to accumulate material wealth? We have allowed greed to sell us a happiness myth.

Third, the path to a civil, peaceful, and successful society is through education. Education needs to be valued more highly that it is now. There needs to be equity of access, equity of resources and opportunities, and a greater respect for the hard work of teachers.

We need to forget the competition to be in the top five as measured by PISA and forge our own identity. To be a nation of innovators our children need to read, write, and add up, but they also need to be able to work together, foster their creativity, find a passion, develop resilience, and design solutions to the problems our world faces. The education of a child is a partnership between the family and the school, not solely the responsibility of our schools.

Why is it that we can’t achieve all this? Perhaps our political system is letting us down.

This is what I have learned and try to practise: Making decisions

Leaders make decisions. Those who don’t, aren’t leading. People look to a leader to make the decisions, no matter how hard.

How a leader makes decisions tends to fall into one of the following four broad categories:

  1. The controller: the person who makes the decisions with no consultation or collaborative effort. They fear that if they don’t, they will be seen as impotent.
  2. The pleaser: the person who makes decisions for the people they want to appease. They are motivated by affirmation from the people they care about the most.
  3. The procrastinator: the person who struggles to make a decision because they fear they may get it wrong, that their decision will have negative impact on people they care about.
  4. The consultor: the person who seeks the opinion of a wide range of people before they make a decision.

We are all the product of our life experiences. In particular, our childhood experiences shape our identity, and consequently, how we approach decision-making.

I know I innately fall into the second category, the pleaser. I can’t pin-point what it was in my upbringing, but I know I have a tendency to make decisions that favour the people I want to receive affirmation from. I want to please the people I like and want to like me. This approach feeds my ego, makes me feel valued, a person of worth.

I know that being a pleaser is my weakness when it comes to decision making. Being a pleaser ultimately doesn’t benefit the organisation I am employed to serve, it serves only my interests.

Research has shown that trust is grown when I make consultative decisions, so I have to work just that little bit harder to ensure I put my ego aside and use processes counter to my nature.

Have you ever had the experience of a decision being made that has a significant impact on your work and you weren’t consulted? It leaves you feeling angry, confused, undervalued, and ultimately, it undermines the confidence and trust you have in the leader.

Those leaders who engage a consultative or collaborative approach to decision-making build a culture of trust. When a leader promotes a culture of trust and the following tends of occur:

  • positions do not matter, contribution does;
  • people are willing to be vulnerable and share ideas because there are high levels of respect;
  • empathy is exercised and everyone feels valued and their views and diverse needs are heard;
  • people’s individual strengths are appreciated and capitalised to create a cohesive team;
  • an absence of a fear of judgement prevails, regardless of the validity of the idea or contribution; and,

as a result, people are more inclined to put in the extra effort that is needed to achieve the vision.

Which of the four categories of decision-maker do you fall into: the controller, pleaser, procrastinator or the consulter? Why? What is holding you back from moving to a place where the decision-making is shared, building greater levels of trust? When it comes to make decisions I have learned that it isn’t all about me.

This is what I have learned and try to practise: Being visible

I have never met Malcolm Turnbull. I have met Mr Howard, Mr Abbott, and Kevin Rudd’s wife Theresa, but I haven’t met the current Prime Minister. Do I trust him? All I have to go by is the Party he is affiliated with, and the snippets I hear in the media.

Personally, I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. I trust them blindly you could say. My starting position is to trust a person until they prove to be untrustworthy. But this doesn’t mean that I’m not cautious in what I share.

What I have learned as a leader is that trust is enhanced the more visible you are. It makes sense. Trust is relational. It is a socially constructed phenomenon. It is cemented and grown if you interact with others; if people see you ‘walking the talk.’

My office as principal at Burgmann Anglican School was on the ground floor looking over the Junior School playground. Each break time there would be children playing outside, waving through the window. I had a direct connection to the life-blood of the organisation.

The office I have at St Paul’s School is on the second floor. It has a beautiful view over the surrounding hills but you cannot see the school. It is so far removed from the organisation that it can be tempting to lock yourself away and bury yourself in all the administration that has to occur.

My research into practices that engender trust taught me that there is incredible value in getting out of my office several times a day to see what is happening around the place: to listen to the ‘pulse’ of the organisation, listen to people’s stories; to celebrate and praise the great things that are happening; and, to model the expectations that the organisation espouses. I hope that I do this well.

Being visible gives the people who follow you the opportunity to prod and poke to see if you are genuine, that you are the ‘real deal’. It gives those people who don’t naturally offer trust blindly, like me, the opportunity to see who their leader is. Are they someone they want to follow, or is their trust going to be misplaced?

Mr Turnbull can’t be visible to me personally, unless I have the opportunity to meet him sometime in the future, but as a leader, I can be visible to everyone in the organisation I serve. I have learned that walking up to eight kilometres a day to be visible is not a waste of my time, but incredibly important to my ability to lead and create a culture that enables people to flourish.


This is what I have learned and try to practise: Offering trust

PhD research identified 10 practices that build trust and unlock the path to compelling leadership. Offering trust is perhaps one of the most powerful and yet, one of the hardest. It is a practice that causes us to question the essence of our own identities.

“I will be away from next Wednesday until the following Monday but will be on email and can be contacted by phone. In my absence Steven will be Acting Head.”

I sent the above email out the day before I left. After I did I began to ponder on the message it gave. Does it say, “I am here to serve, even when I am away”, or does it say, “I’m indispensable and you will need me, even if I’m not there”?

I find it fascinating watching the inevitable at conferences, particularly conferences for leaders. At each break the mobile phones come out. Everyone checking in. “Everything ok back at work? How are you going on that project?” I know this as I too was a culprit. Perhaps it was a strategy to avoid talking with someone new, or a technique to convince myself I was important, that I was indispensable.

What happened in the days before mobile technology when the leader went away to a conference or on holidays? They couldn’t be contacted. They had to trust the troops to keep things running. Now, it would seem, we have become enslaved. Our identity intrinsically connected to the amount of time we are on our devices.

Perhaps you have given similar messages to those you lead: “When you have written your reports send them to me for checking”; or, “let me know how you get on with that client”.

Our ability to offer trust is caught up in our own perception of who we are. If we lack a certain self-confidence we need to constantly demonstrate that we are important, that people need us, that we are the one in charge, that no one can do it as well as me.

My (our) ability to be in touch at all times says that I’m in control. If I’m not in charge then my lack of self-confidence tells me that I’m not needed, I’m dispensable. So to continue to be needed, to have an identity of importance, I need to seek to remain in control.

The email message I sent out should have read, “I will be away from next Wednesday until the following Monday. Steven is in charge.”

If we are truly confident in ourselves and comfortable in who we are then we would offer trust to others, allowing them to blossom in the opportunities our willingness to be humble provides. You don’t have to lead all the time.

This is what I have learned and try to practise: Keeping confidences

The role of any leader is just two-fold: to provide a compelling vision of the future that people aspire to attain and, to build trust so those people will be willing to take the journey with you.

Research has identified 10 key practices that build trust in a leader. The most obvious of these is keeping confidences.

Did you hear about John’s wife and what happened in parliament the other day…

Why is it that people love to gossip? Because knowledge is power and gives us identity, but it is only power if others know you have special information that no one else does.

When you are in a position of leadership you are privy to very sensitive information. If you are genuinely trusted, people will share their inner most fears and concerns with you. I have learned that it is a privilege to be invited into people’s lives to hear their greatest joy, and their depths of despair.

It is a self-fulfilling cycle. The more you keep a person’s confidence, the more you are trusted, and in turn, the more people share will with you. The relationship grows. This brings the opportunity to walk with others and mentor or coach them. The reward is seeing a fellow human move out of despondency and into a place where they can flourish.

No experience of this cycle has been more powerful and compelling than the experience I had before, during and following the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. There is a fine line between keeping a confidence and passing on information that you are legally bound to do, but the lessons reinforced through those experiences are a reminder of how to keep confidences.

I have learned that many people who come to speak with me just want someone to listen. They want to be heard, to be valued as a person of worth. They want empathy. More often than not they don’t wish you to act, they just want to share the burden. To genuinely want to grow trust you have to be prepared to carry that burden with them. I learned that in listening the journey of healing begins.

But in this privilege comes huge responsibility. Truly keeping confidences means that you forgo the power that knowledge can bring. To truly keep confidences you have to be totally comfortable in your own skin so your identity isn’t caught up in what you know, rather, it is caught up in how much you are trusted.

In offering this humility before the other person you must always ask them permission if you feel that the information they have entrusted you with needs to go further. A good question to ask is: “Do you want me to do something about this or are you just wanting me to know?”

Keeping confidences is the most fundamental and obvious practice in building trust, but it is the practice that can most easily be a leader’s undoing. If you breach a person’s confidence without their permission, even out of good intent, it is incredibly hard to re-establish your credibility as a trusted leader.

This is what I have learned and try to practise – Acknowledging others

PhD research identified 10 practices that build trust and unlock the path to compelling leadership: acknowledging others is one of them.

I have learnt that leadership is often a thankless task. Very rarely will anyone think to thank the leader. In making this statement I’m not looking for pity, or even a ‘thank you’, but simply point out a reality so other leaders can take encouragement.

People don’t think to thank the leader: I don’t believe this is ever intentional, but symptomatic of the people’s view of people in leadership roles. By nature, we are quick to criticise and blame if something goes wrong but don’t stop to think of the blessings we all receive each and every day.

If you are a leader, don’t get hung up on the fact that you may never be the recipient of gratitude. Your sense of value will be found in the lives you have the privilege of interacting with every day. True motivation to do good wells up in our internal altruistic intent. “No thanks” can be thanks itself if we remember that what we are doing as leaders is to God’s glory. Instead, use this thankless task of leadership as a motivator or a reminder to thank those you seek to lead or come into contact with.

I met an amazing educator last week. Helen is working hard to make a difference in her school. She is a deeply reflective person, desperate to grow her leadership capacity. It was inspiring to hear her share her story. It is rare to find someone so honest and so passionate.

Helen had recently been given feedback about her leadership practice. As a result of that feedback she had adjusted her behaviour. She taught me something valuable about the practice of appreciation.

As a leader Helen had always practised the art of appreciation. She constantly looked for opportunities to thank people. She sent emails, left cards, or visited people to thank them for the work they had been doing: “Thank you Sam for organising the performance last night, it was just brilliant.”

However, Helen taught me that while a nice thing to do, thanks expressed in this way isn’t effective enough. People want to know that their efforts aren’t in vain but that they make a difference. Rather than just saying thank you, it is far more meaningful to thank the person for the difference their efforts are making.

“Thank you Sam for organising the performance last night, I have never seen young Ben express such courage. You have made a significant impact on his life.”

We all want to know that the efforts we go to actually are making a difference. Tell someone this. Instead of waiting to be thanked, ask yourself each afternoon before you go home from work: have I done my best to thank someone for the difference they are making? In doing so, not only will you be building that person, but you will be growing a compelling leadership built on trust.