Tough, Honest, Humble Self-Assessment

I recently received a note in an email from the Executive Vice President of an $8 billion international business – I’ll call him Geoffrey. He sent this in relation to his company’s succession plan and his preparation for advancing to the CEO position in two years.

He wrote, “I want to identify some guiding principles I can follow that will help me with being an effective leader – how to consistently be an effective leader, knowledgeable of my strengths and where I am most vulnerable when it comes to leadership.”

It’s a great place to start! “Knowledgeable of my strengths and where I am most vulnerable” is a character-grounded inquiry for the self-development of leaders. For Geoffrey, one of his real strengths is his willingness to look at his weaknesses, and be vulnerable. And it is a solid position on which to construct “guiding principles.” Too often, when leaders reach the lofty heights of power and authority, they lose touch with their vulnerabilities and rationalize selfish guidelines because they feel fortified by their commercial success, constantly reaffirmed by politically correct, sycophantic employees, and insulated from the realities hidden deep in their organization.

A sense of humility is a quality I have observed
in every leader whom I have deeply admired.
        – Dwight D. Eisenhower

True leadership begins with humility and a conscious worthy purpose; it’s where the character is anchored. Humility is a fallow ground for self-awareness and it allows for the identification of weaknesses, which, in turn, generates a deeper understanding within oneself. It is here where one finds higher purpose and guiding principles and where one can see a landscape that stretches beyond the horizon of immediate results and short-term gratification. Geoffrey realizes this and is preparing to forge a foundation on which he can set worthy goals, both personal and organizational.

Today, we have a culture of “big-me” with endless celebrities, politicians, CEOs, and wannabes (even a U.S. President who has been a supernova in this epidemic), all scrambling to wear the badge of “leader” without having the required character imperatives. It’s a contemporary cultural paradox: Many leaders, little character. We have a plethora of self-proclaimed leaders in charge of their parcels of mediocrity.

In business, the mediocrity is reflected in the astonishing numbers from Gallup on employee disengagement, a generational legacy we have yet to adequately address. In the United States there are approximately 145 million people employed in the workplace and 70% of them, 100 million, are disengaged from their companies – that’s 70 out of 100 people at all levels in the workplace, who don’t care much about their companies because they feel the company cultures are inhospitable. That means the majority of organizations are operating at a mediocre level; two-thirds of disengaged employees can only produce mediocrity. This is the weak underbelly of most businesses and a significant liability in valuing a business. It is also an opportunity for competitive advantage if leaders see it, face it, and resolve the problems. Keep in mind, these extraordinary levels of disengagement have been in the making for more than a century so it is not an easy, “new program” fix.

Over the past thirty years, companies have implemented countless employee engagement surveys, undertaken leadership effectiveness programs, and initiated round after round of cultural change and yet, the numbers don’t lie. The needle has hardly moved. This is a red-letter declaration that we have a problem in dire need of leadership renewal because what most leaders have been attempting to do – and continue to do – is lead a large cohort of disengaged employees.

It’s axiomatic. Despite all the employee engagement surveys and initiatives, we are not engaging the vast majority of employees. That’s why a tough, honest, humble assessment of our leadership, especially our failings and weaknesses is so important.

Geoffrey gets it.