The Importance of Authenticity in Leadership
Jack Welch and his wife, Suzy, wrote a great LinkedIn article a couple of years ago on What it Really Takes to Succeed. In it, they spoke of the importance of Authenticity.
I worked for GE (Capital) under Mr. Welch as my first job out of business school, albeit layers removed from Mr. Welch.
GE was an incredibly invigorating place, full of smart, exciting results. It was a flat, remarkably non-bureaucratic and aggressively intelligent company. And it was the Fortune-5 company, with 330,000 employees and 15 businesses.
I worked in, of all places, Beverly Hills, CA. Three thousand miles away from Jack Welch. Yet I was surrounded by him every hour of every day. His passion, presence and authenticity burned everywhere within GE. His vision, values and expected behaviors permeated GE.
Mr. Welch understood that whenever he spoke, he had to speak to people's hearts and minds. And every message had to reinforce his vision and values. But, as Mr. Welch knew, corporate vision and values are almost always obvious, patronizing and squishy words, which often only serve to confuse and jade people.
Excellence is a Habit, Not an Act
Ultimately words don’t matter. What matters is results. But results come from people. And people must be led. We are led through others’ behavior and the results they get.
As Aristotle observed a few years back "we are what we habitually do. Excellence therefore is not an act, but a habit." Nothing much has changed since Aristotle made this observation.
Our important results come from our habitual behaviors and actions. And our habitual behaviors and actions come from our beliefs, such as our values and personal standards. Yes, values are beliefs. What we value” we believe to be of particular importance.
We Can Manage and Direct Behaviors. We Can Only Influence Beliefs
But beliefs are very personal things. And it is impossible to manage people’s beliefs.
But what we can do is lead people: We can influence people's beliefs, and therefore their behaviors, through us personifying the desired values with authenticity through our habitual behaviors and actions.
Isn’t this what leadership is?
Remember Ronald Reagan and the evil Soviet Empire? “Trust but verify.”
Systems and Structures. Trust, but Verify
So great managers and wise leaders trust, but verify. Through Systems and Structures.
We can manage people's behaviors and actions, but not their beliefs. We influence beliefs and verify behavior by setting up Systems and Structures which force people to participation in behaviors and activities that exemplify the desired values and, at the very least, they engage in the behaviors that are most likely to create the desired results.
One theoretical value for which Mr. Welch was a proponent of was "Boundarylessness." Boundarylessness might be defined as a culture where vertical and horizontal walls are eliminated and communication, problem solving and commitment to success are shared across businesses and all internal and external stakeholders, as well as through reporting chains of command.
Most CEOs would hear about the concept of Boundarylessness as a cultural best practice of another company or they might even come up with the theoretical concept themselves. And they might "preach" it to their people. After all, it sounds great, doesn't it? And it would make the CEO sound smart. Competitive. Driven. Creative.
And that CEO would then go about their life and work pretty much as they always have. Business as usual. And Boundarylessness would die the death that dozens of other "CEO flavors of the month" died in the past.
Being the brilliant person he is, Mr. Welch didn't just "talk" Boundarylessness. He set up Systems and Structures that forced people to be active participants in those behaviors and actions that best exemplified buy-in to GE values, and buy-in at a very high level.
So Mr. Welch reinforced his Vision and Values with Systems and Structure. Systems and Structures that required people to exemplify his values and actualize his vision through manageable demonstrative behavior.
Boundarylessness Systems and Structures required me to meet every two months with hundreds of people from all 15 GE businesses from the entire Pacific Rim. I met with hundreds of people I never otherwise would have met and we brainstormed together possible solutions to customer, vendor and GE needs, including increased sales for GE.
Because of Jack Welch and his Boundarylessness Systems and Structures:
Through GE Capital, I financed $120-million of a $2-billion development project in Las Vegas. If not for Welch's Systems and Structures, Boundarylessnes would have been yet another (all too often useless) senior management "flavor of the day."
What are your goals? Your mission? Your values? What are your corporate habits, norms and culture? Do you have Systems and Structures codified that are habitually verified that require people to engage in the behaviors and actions most likely to create the results you are after?