Magazine article People & Strategy

The Power of Leadership Trustees

Magazine article People & Strategy

The Power of Leadership Trustees

Article excerpt

"Leadership is all about trusteeship."

--Dr. Manu Kulkarni, Siddaganga Institute of Technology, Bangalore, India

Leadership trustees are people throughout an organization who develop and protect its values, culture and chosen leadership dynamic. They can be instrumental in creating high-performance organizations. We usually think of trustees as members of a board of directors solely focused on fiduciary obligations. But leadership trustees--who can be board members, the CEO, officers and others--do something more: They provide the active checks and balances an organization needs to be its best. The trustees may have positional authority, or they may have no formal power, but they are all empowered to act by the shared values. They go beyond their functional positions, acting in the best interest of the organization and holding others accountable. They work on the business, not just in it.

The Emergence of a Leadership Trustee

Bob recalls a defining moment in the turnaround of Sensormatic Electronics, a $l billion producer of security tags and other devices for retail and other industries. Sensormatic was a New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) company suffering in the wake of an ethical scandal, bleeding $100 million in cash per year, and the accompanying crises of confidence among stakeholders.

The senior staff had carefully formulated new shared values of "Leadership, Integrity, Teamwork, and Excellence" to rebuild a healthy culture. A Star Leadership Model further articulated their leadership commitments, such as "how we should act" (including "be a personal role model," "accountable"), "how we should treat others" ("with respect," "never taking advantage"), and the like.

During the dreaded emergency senior staff meetings that took place every Saturday morning, each executive reported progress on critical milestones. One VP, let's call him Phil, inevitably did not deliver on his important assignments. In one meeting, Bob, the CEO, grilled him, shouting that his excuses were unacceptable. Everybody looked at the floor. It was a short meeting.

Afterward, Bob asked another VP, Jerry, what he thought. Jerry paused for a long while, perhaps gathering his courage, and then said, "Well, you sure didn't treat Phil according to our Star Leadership Model."

Bob realized that while he had to hold Phil accountable, public humiliation had been a failure of leadership. He reconvened the meeting, offered Phil and the staff a public apology, and asked for forgiveness.

That Saturday morning meeting became a defining moment in the turnaround. It's when the team came together, committing to operate by the shared values. In fewer than four years, Sensormatic got back on track, reversing the cash flow to a positive $100 million per year, while operating ethically.

Jerry was a "leadership trustee" that day. He "spoke truth to power," and his courage emboldened others: "We'll protect our new culture. We'll operate by the shared values. We'll hold each other to a new standard." Phil delivered his assignment the next week and became a valued team member. As Jerry said a year later, "I almost feel sorry for our competitors."

Leadership Trustees

Leadership trustees are leaders who actively step outside their functional positions, influencing how others behave, reinforcing the desired culture. They don't just "do their jobs." They also shape and protect the organization's values, culture and desired leadership dynamic. In doing so, they give the organization its soul.

We define leadership by what it should accomplish, not by the personal characteristics or traits of the leader. Leadership must achieve results. Good tries are nice, thank you; but achieving results is essential. Ideally, those results are significantly positive for the many stakeholders. And they should be sustainable over time. The task of leadership is to achieve results with integrity--where performance and ethics are compatible, where good meets great. …

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