The famed basketball coach, John Wooden, said, “adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it”. I wonder what coach Wooden would say about the CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, when he said “he was deeply sorry about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico”. I think coach Wooden would say we’re seeing the true character of Mr. Hayward.
I believe Mr. Hayward when he says he is deeply sorry. I believe he is sorry he’s having to be grilled at congressional hearings, that his professional life is on the ropes, and that he will be forever remembered as the CEO that presided over the worst oil disaster in history.
I’m deeply sorry too. I’m sorry I can’t find out for myself if he is truly the villain he’s being made out to be. I’m sorry I can’t see first hand how his character shows up in person. I’m deeply sorry I can’t have a conversation with him about his role in the oil spill, and what he’s learned about leadership and about himself.
As a leader, the way you engage others in conversations is important. How you engage people you disagree with in the public domain is especially important. Whether leaders recognize it, they are presented daily with an opportunity to cultivate a culture where learning from a difference in opinion is valued and where the exploration of new ideas is welcomed for the contribution to growth and innovation they provide.
Whenever we have a difference in opinion however, especially with a boss, a board of directors, and especially when the opinion is about a high value project, goal, or cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico, there are two options for how to respond.
Option one is to be “open” to the differing opinion and welcome it as an opportunity to learn, to see things from another perspective, and integrate what can be beneficial and workable. Differing opinions in this sense are seen as a type of creative abrasion and act as the sand that makes pearls possible. Like pearls this takes time.
Or, the second option is to be “protective” of our current understanding and knowledge, dismissing the differing perspective as unworthy of further consideration, and jettisoning any possibility for creating new knowledge and understanding. This second option has a negative consequence for leaders. Employees give up on bringing new ideas to the table and leaders lose access to the ingenuity and creativity of their employees. This option takes less time in the short term and erodes a leaders credibility the longer it is used. Mr. Hayward is a perfect example.
These two options present an interesting paradox. On the one hand we as a society embrace the idea of learning, of personal growth, and purchase shelf loads of self-help and personal development books to aid in our growth. We are also a society accustomed to quick fixes. We are comfortable listening to our doctor explain the risks associated with our elevated cholesterol – along with the benefits of diet and exercise, because we know there is a quick fix answer of prescription medication and that we’ll not have to change our behavior.
In my work as a management consultant, my primary job is to help clients see their work differently and to convince them that there are no quick fixes to character flawed leadership. My role is to help clients see the unrealized leadership opportunities before them and provide practical and tactical ways to capitalize of them.
To that end, I’ve been known to provocatively ask clients to convince me that they truly, deeply, and sincerely care about and want to change the impact their leadership has on employees and customers? Are they willing to risk the success of the past in the hopes of creating something of even greater value in the future?
I would pay very close attention to how Tony Hayward would answer these questions. Would he flinch, avoid the questions, or explain away all the ways he’s too busy and distracted? Would he earnestly say “yes, but I don’t know where to start?”
In interviewing business owners and CEO’s for my upcoming book about how ordinary people achieve extraordinary results, I’ve learned that one of the key elements to achieving the extraordinary is cultivating a sincere curiosity about what works and what doesn’t. Since leadership development is personal development, one place to start is to understand if you are seen as open or protective, and to be deeply curious as to whether your behavior, in times of adversity, harnesses the ingenuity and creativity of your employees.
To that end, here are a few questions to pique your interest.
1. Is the leadership trait “open and receptive to hearing new ideas and learning from them” important to you?
2. Why is this important to you? Not theoretically, but personally.
3. If I were to perform a leadership brand inventory with your direct reports, would “open and receptive to new ideas and learning from them” be on the list of traits or characteristics used to describe you? (Please, no magical thinking here – be brutally honest)
4. If this leadership attribute is important to me, how well am I doing in role modeling this throughout my team/department/organization? (Rate yourself on a 1-10 scale with one as the lowest and ten the highest)
5. Is my score from question number four where I need it to be considering my strategic business initiatives?
6. What evidence do I have that confirms how well I’m doing? (Be behaviorally specific)
7. Is my evidence solely from my perspective or do I have behaviorally specific feedback from unbiased observers?
8. What percent of my direct reports are role modeling this same behavior, and what am I doing daily to have this trait take root throughout my team and organization?
9. Is my leadership philosophy rooted in learning, growth, and behavior change? Or, is my focus more on quick fixes?
10. What behaviors have I exhibited over the last week that confirm my belief or perception as to question number nine?
No matter how entertaining, we are going to have to wait for Tony Hayward to answer these questions. What we don’t have to wait for however are your answers.
I’ll be deeply sorry if you neglect answering these questions.