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Susan Fowler


Is Anything We Thought About Leadership True?

Three questions emerge from the 2016 election cycle

Published: Wednesday, December 14, 2016 - 14:06

Last week, I planned to write about a leadership technique backed by research to improve workplace motivation, engagement, and productivity. But, given the recent political season, I found myself wondering if anything we’ve believed about leadership is true. Does humility matter? Should leaders apologize? Is it better to tell people the truth or what they want to hear?

I have spent the best part of my life exploring how to help people thrive at work. In today’s reality, I find myself questioning everything I thought I knew. This is not a bad thing, but it sure makes it challenging to write a typical article. Again, not a bad thing!

In the spirit of seeking to understand, I am posing a few questions that keep me awake at night. I’m not doing this so you will lose sleep, too, but so we might pursue the answers, together, from different perspectives.

Does humility matter?

As Jim Collins wrote in Harvard Business Review, “The essential ingredient for taking a company to greatness is having a ‘Level 5’ leader, an executive in whom extreme personal humility blends paradoxically with intense professional will.”

Collins paints a compelling and counterintuitive portrait of the skills and personality traits necessary for effective leadership. He identifies the characteristics common to Level 5 leaders: humility, will, ferocious resolve, and the tendency to give credit to others while assigning blame to themselves.

It makes sense that a humble leader is also an empathetic leader who can relate to people’s feelings and better meet their needs. I wonder, Jim, are we wrong about this?

Should leaders apologize?

Ken Blanchard wrote a book on this topic, The One Minute Apology (William Morrow, 2003). In it, he writes, “Apologize not for the outcome, but because you know you were wrong and it’s the right thing to do. Every one-minute apology makes you more aware of how much your behavior affects others.”

Blanchard further writes, “People who don’t apologize think the world revolves around them. They lack humility. People with humility don’t think less of themselves, they just think about themselves less.” There’s that humility thing again.

Alec Baldwin, playing Trump in a comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live, couldn’t even say the word. Trump’s not the only politician who finds it painful to admit wrongdoing. Maybe apologizing does make you look weak. I wonder.

Is it better to tell people the truth or what they want to hear?

People tend to overlook the flaws of a candidate if they believe that candidate will fix their problem. This explains why voters are able to bypass their own candidate’s lies and justify their position by pointing to the opposing candidate’s lies.

PolitiFact, a Pulitzer-prize winning website dedicated to fact checking the media, politicians, celebrities, or anyone who has a microphone, concluded more than 18 months of presidential campaigning that covered all the candidates—some more than others. One hundred and forty-eight of Hillary Clinton’s statements were true or mostly true compared with Donald Trump’s 41 statements. Clinton was ruled to have 29 false statements compared to Trump’s 111. Clinton earned seven “Pants of Fire” ratings—the most egregious category of lies—to Trump’s 57.

Maybe this isn’t a joke: “How do you know a politician is lying? His (or her) lips are moving.”

A Trump supporter explained to me, “When it comes to political leaders, I simply accept the fact that they lie.” The quantity of lies was irrelevant to her. If you talk to Trump supporters, his lies were more acceptable than Clinton’s. Talk to Clinton supporters, and the preposterous number of Trump’s lies meant they couldn’t—or wouldn’t—trust anything he said.

“Truthiness,” Stephen Colbert reminded us, is “believing something that feels true, even if it isn’t supported by fact.” Colbert coined another new word: “Trumpiness,” which is “Believing something you know isn’t true.”

Truth, Truthiness, or Trumpiness. Stephen, I wonder if telling the truth matters when people are invested in bigger issues?

I also wonder:
1. Do a leader’s values really matter?
2. Does trust matter?
3. Is there a difference between being authentic and saying whatever you’re thinking in the moment?
4. If people can benefit from a leader’s self-orientation, is it okay to be self-serving?

Ultimately, these questions arise: Does the quality of leadership matter? Do we accept different qualities for someone running for or becoming the leader of a country compared to leaders of public- or private-sector organizations? Do we perceive effective leadership differently when we vote for our leader vs. when we have no power to appoint who leads us?

Pondering these questions, I realize there’s one thing I don’t ever need to wonder about—how to spend the rest of my life. I am more dedicated now than ever to understanding the phenomenon of leadership and followership. Obviously, there is so much to learn.

First published on the SmartBrief blog.


About The Author

Susan Fowler

Susan Fowler implores leaders to stop trying to motivate people. In her latest bestselling book, she explains "Why Motivating People Doesn't Work ... And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing. She is the author of by-lined articles, peer-reviewed research, and six books, including the bestselling "Self Leadership" and the "One Minute Manager" with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs, such as the Situational Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more information, visit SusanFowler.com.



So it's okay to lie 7 times, but 57 times is not acceptable?

Politifact is a left-leaning organization, so of course they are going to state that Donald Trump was untruthful more often than Hillary Clinton. Plus, the references to Stephen Cobert and Alex Baldwin.  They are hardly men who are sympathetic to, or even respectful of, conservatives or conservative viewpoints.

Reading this column leads to me to question your leadership and honesty.

Leadership and Truthfulness

I am disappointed that Quality Digest would publish such a strongly biased opinion piece. Leadership has many perspectives. This veiled plug for Clinton over Trump is inappropriate for this magazine. 

Yes, leadership needs humility. It also needs a back bone. Apologies are not necessary because someone disagrees with a leader's position. Right and wrong, unfortunately, are not always black and white. 

Leadership needs visibility and a strong position to negotiate in a complex world. Our quality community has the skills to help guide a successful pathway through difficult issues. Let's get to work.