by Art Stewart

It’s a maxim you’ve likely heard repeated enough through the years that it became a mantra if you followed it – or a cliché if you failed to heed the wisdom of its simplicity: Walk your talk and the rest will follow.

Right now, business leaders are struggling to maintain grounding in an era of unprecedented upheaval of status quo assumptions and a dismantling of the historic “establishment” prerogatives.

Leadership_Businessman in Auditorium_FeatureIf you look more closely at any number of marquee businesses that broke new ground and disrupted their universe, or innovators who pioneered a new game or at least altered its rules, a common theme emerges: The organization and its leaders, for the most part, modeled and fashioned the change their inventiveness inspired.

Now no one individual or business entity is perfect. However, in the new environment of hyper scrutiny, increasing regulation, vigilante-styled consumer retribution, “occupy” public protests, and overnight reversals in public trust and confidence – do you think you can improve your competitive position without consistently modeling what you stand for? Whether it is in your personal leadership behavior, your organization’s culture or your brand’s engagement with all stakeholders, closing the walk-talk gap should be a top priority.

Start with the Ego Impulse of Success

Dave Balter, the once high-flying chief executive of the social marketing company BzzAgent, who sold his company last May to Tesco’s Dunnhumby for a reported $60 million, chronicles his near demise in a recent article for Inc. magazine: “The Humility Imperative: CEOs, Keep Your Arrogance in Check.”

In a frank and admirable confession, Balter admits his out of control ego almost destroyed the flourishing word-of-mouth pioneer image he labored long and hard to build. Imploring every entrepreneur, CEO and leader to find humility, he advises to “dig a hole, throw your ego into it, and pour concrete on top.”

BzzAgent clients included some of the biggest companies in the world and had been featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine as well as being the subject of two Harvard Business School cases. Balter was called a genius and while his ego provided the confidence to be a great leader, he had to learn the hard way that a chief executive is not God.

“My entire style evolved from confident to cocky,” he recalls. “When I interviewed job candidates, I was less conversational and more confrontational… By the time 2007 rolled around I was blinded by my own press and felt BzzAgent was unstoppable… looking back I realize now the only voices I heard were the ones in my head: I made every product decision, shunned investment overtures, and ignored competitors as wannabes and copycats. I believed my vision was untouchable.”

Balter’s experience led to some important lessons in humility. He started operating as a student and a sponge, seeking out input from a wide range of sources and engaging in the conscious listening he had impulsively dismissed: “Disregard the fawning fanboys and king-like power you feel… choose to recognize your place in the universe is no more important than anyone else’s. Have humility, or your hubris will have you,” he implores.

Fostering an Environment for Impact: Check List to Greater Credibility

By becoming more conscious of the factors that reinforce any gaps in your leadership talk (promise) versus your walk (actions), and then developing a method (style) that shepherds rather than imposes, visionary leaders may reinforce the credibility that can inspire your troops to collective greatness – avoiding the pitfalls of ego centricity and its accompanying alienation that Balter warns about.

From our years of guiding C-suite leaders, we’ve developed this checklist to help guide you in confidently emulating a model of responsibility that endears your organization to sharing in the realization of your vision:

Commit to courage. Successful leaders know the job is not for the faint-hearted. If your knees buckle easily, it may not be for you. Real leadership is more a calling of high order, not as much about the power and the glory. Follow-through and fulfillment are its hallmarks: do what you say you’ll do and act according to who you profess to be.

Authenticity breeds confidence.  Authentic leadership is about staying real. That requires integrity. Make sure your ethical house is in order, which in turn will reduce the fear of competitive vulnerability.

Develop a plan and stay fluid. You go nowhere fast without a strategy. First, commit to your vision, which should be rock solid. Then develop a fluid strategy to navigate the vision. Fluidity is an operating mode that enables you to course-correct as you progress toward the decisive outcome.

Watch out for pretense.  Authentic leaders don’t need the pretense of appearing too busy to be attentive and responsive. Being “unavailable” to lend credence to the concern of the moment by providing undivided attention creates an avoidance syndrome that can infect the organization. Recent history has shown us how the “What I don’t know (or don’t have time to know), I don’t have to deal with” syndrome can play out. If you think you are giving away your power by responding to people in the moment, you have no power worth protecting in the first place.

Don’t do ‘group think’.  Don’t imply endorsement of the assumed way of thinking by doing nothing when subordinates engage in the ‘group think’ behaviors of rank-and-file politics. Do you know of anyone who got to the head of their game thinking like everybody else? If you want to inspire, acquire unconventional wisdom.

Resist the temptation to pull rank.  Confident leaders don’t need to pull rank or maneuver behind “protocol” when tough issues must be dealt with. They jump into the deep end directly (but not head first!). Today’s shepherd leaders flourish within horizontal organizations of mission clusters rather than authoritarian ‘divisions’ of hierarchal, centralized authority.

Trust the deputies you surround yourself with. Real leadership is cemented by a front line constituency: your trusted inner circle of expert deputies. If convinced you are the smartest person in the room, you are in big trouble. One of the surest paths to failure is to not listen to, or not act upon, the knowledge of the experts you hire to surround yourself with. Don’t micromanage, macro inspire.

Don’t make your inner circle compete for access or attention.  The old style of authoritarian rule creates a climate in which your senior deputies compete with each other for your attention and your allegiance (favoritism). Traditional management pundits theorize this is a good way to build and sustain loyalty, and to draw out the best in each vertical discipline. However, this leadership style can be fatal in the horizontal organization. There are stunning examples of how flawed this model is from the scandals of the past decade; situations primarily spawned by cultures that enabled duplicity.

Deputies who vie for your allegiance in this fashion are likely also competing with each other in areas that don’t serve the organization’s interest as a whole. For example, not sharing proprietary intelligence or not pooling resources for greater cost-efficiencies. Politics is a productivity drain on one of your most vital assets – human capital.

Don’t misinterpret independent thinking as disloyalty.  You can react to ‘out of the box’ thinkers by misreading their passion for contrary viewpoints as disloyalty. For them, having a big-picture perspective requires a large degree of critical analysis to say nothing of the courage required to speak up. This type of employee can be your greatest personnel asset. They are more likely to be authentically concerned about the welfare of the whole as they see their own boat rising with the tide.

Put the right security and accountability checks in place so your true disciples aren’t squelched by your misplaced distrust or paranoia.

Conversely, employees or partners who are plotting self-interested agendas, or who are disloyal for their own gain, are not going to consciously bring attention to themselves. Workplace deviousness is most prevalent in guarded behavior.

Recognize the true contributors to your success.  Confident, secure leaders generously tout the contributions of their deputies. It’s an “us” not a “me” game. Authentic leadership thrives on finding and nurturing the best people, and then getting out of their way.

Don’t let good people go – angry. The old maxim in marketing continues to ring true that one unhappy customer will do more damage to your reputation than ten happy ones will help it. The same is true for employee relationships. If people leave you, especially a star, make sure you part on good terms.

Art Stewart_CropArt Stewart, MPM, is President/Chief Strategy Officer of Boston-based Stewart Strategies Group (www.stewartgrp.com). He teaches a custom course on corporate and social responsibility at Emerson College and is a Research Fellow at the Bentley University Center for Business Ethics.