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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Questions We Didn’t Get To Answer

It’s been a little over two weeks since the “Summit on Leadership in Crisis,” and we’re still seeing questions and feedback pour in via Twitter and email.  I was flipping through several of these over coffee this morning, and while I don’t have the other panelists here with me, I thought I’d take a crack at answering a few as a way to wrap up this first discussion on leadership in crisis (of many more to come).    

 

As always, would love to hear your feedback.

 

Q:  “How does an organization get back the confidence needed to perform @ high levels in tough time?”

 

A:   It needs to start at both the very top and the very bottom for confidence to spread within an entire company in the midst of crisis.  Leaders at the top need to be honest and candid about the challenges ahead, while continuing to project optimism and inspiration.  Our panelist Anne Mulcahy did a phenomenal job of this when she first took the helm at Xerox.

 

But employees cannot just rely on confidence to trickle down from their CEO – mid-level managers and the employees also must be bulwarks of poise and self-reliance.  Companies need all employees asking: “What can I do more efficiently and positively today, and how can I help someone else do the same?”  To regain confidence, leaders need to make it a company-wide prerogative.

 

Q:  “Our crisis of capitalism seems to be mainly a crisis of character.  How can we – or can we – develop character traits like courage and integrity?

 

A:  “Crisis of character” is an apt description for the “short-termist,” unprincipled leadership that led to the economic crisis.  And while recognition of the root cause is a great first action in ensuring that we do not repeat the economic collapse of 08-09, it is merely the first of many needed to combat this “crisis of character.”  The next steps require a working combination of several congruent elements:

 

First, leaders must begin taking themselves to task and ensuring that their behavior is geared toward long-term viability not just short-term profit-seeking.  Likewise, boards of directors need to make a concerted effort to incentivize those positive behaviors, primarily by tying compensation to performance.  Furthermore, the U.S. government must resist the temptation to over-regulate and install overly-restrictive executive pay standards.  Regulation is important, but it can easily go too far.

We need all decision-making bodies to jointly foster a climate where traits like courage and integrity are concretely rewarded, not simply lauded as idealistic traits.  The best way to encourage principled behavior to take root in the capitalist system is to incentivize it.  This, in turn, will help ensure the long-term viability and profitability of American companies.

 

Q:  “How can we solve any major problems in this climate of incivility?  And what kind of leadership is required to bring us back to civility?”

A:  To the first question, unfortunately we will be incapable generate the most necessary and comprehensive solutions if the current climate persists.  While speaking to our audience during the Summit, David Gergen gave an honest assessment of the state of incivility in American political discussion – if we continue trending along this path of vitriol and blind argument, we risk sowing the seeds of our republic’s demise.  If we continue to yell, rather than debate respectfully, we’ll continue putting off solutions to issues like health care, education, and energy policy reform.  And accepting this legislative stalemate could lead to our being surpassed by other nations, both in progress and in prestige. 

 

Partisan jockeying should have no place, and instead leaders must be willing to risk popularity in the interests of real solutions.  We need leaders who are capable of making the difficult decisions and of reaching reasonable compromises; and we need them to insist on doing so in a respectful manner.  It would be helpful if that mentality not only blossomed in the halls of Congress, but in the blogosphere and the mainstream media.