First and foremost, leaders are judged by the actions they take. Today’s high profile leaders are prominently visible to all of their key constituencies. They make speeches and presentations to employees, shareholders, financial analysts, and the public in general.
Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines) exemplifies this. “He’s totally true to himself and totally consistent between his private life and his public life. He’s totally consistent between his public speeches and his private speeches.
You could look at a speech that Herb gave to the annual shareholders meeting of 2002 and compare it to his message to the field in 1992 and compare it to a letter to employees in 1982 and find tremendous consistency in terms of adherence to core values. So the absolute adherence to extraordinarily high professional principles of ethical conduct and fair dealing, is just remarkable over time. So he built up a reservoir of credibility not only among employees but other people.”
Many leaders may sound impressive, but simultaneously undermine their credibility since their actions fail to mirror their words. In some instances, leaders’ actions contradict their company’s mission statement, resulting in confusion within their organization. In either case, their personal actions become corrosive to the organizational culture, as well as their own individual credibility.
As a high profile leader, Carly Fiorina’s (Hewlett Packard) actions were highly scruntized and undermined her credibility. “Fiorina came in with a mandate of change, but didn’t make any effort to build trust between herself and the company. Indeed, she sullied her image by exalting herself without regard to her employees’ reactions. Buying a personal jet in front of a distrustful and alienated workforce is one example. Freezing employee salaries while giving herself and her executive ilk bonuses is another. Doing these things in light of nearly 18,000 employee dismissals (2003) is just plain callous.” 
Leaders’ actions set the tone for their organization, whether they realize it or not. They can either inspire or generate resentment in their employees. Fred Smith (FedEx) inspired his organization by setting a tone where all his employees felt they could share in the success of the company. He stated,
“One of the biggest principles is that you’ve got to take action. Most large organizations reach a static point. They cannot take any action, because there are all types of barriers to doing so. There are institutionalized barriers that weren’t there when the company was considerably smaller. What changes is your knowledge and your appreciation of how to deal with those institutional barriers, to eliminate them or use them to your advantage in achieving those changes. There are myriad number of changes that have to take place in the management style for the company to continue growing.”
“’Andy [Grove – Intel] has always been a teacher – often by example,’ says Ron Whittier, senior vice president in charge of content development… Yet I don’t think he wants to be remembered as a great visionary – but as someone who made things happen and created a great company.’” 
All constituencies expect leaders to be fair, just and consistent. Any perception of cronyism and the use of internal politics to develop an advantage for one individual or group generates unintended consequences, as these policies and actions are replicated at lower levels.
Yet, for certain types of leaders, potential gains are too tempting not to employ these practices. Their focus on personal gain, however, becomes transparent to the rest of the organization. This destroys trust and channels of openness and honesty throughout the company. Fredrick Joseph (Drexel Burnham) created a dysfunctional culture when he ignored the unethical practices and securities violations of high-powered Michael Milken, and his creation of the junk bond business. The insider-trader scandals surrounding Milken ultimately led to the largest bankruptcy in Wall Street history at that time.
These actions hamper leaders’ abilities to instill their ideas, beliefs and values in others, and significantly hinder them when communicating sweeping strategies that are needed to move organizations forward. Rather than unite different factions, they splinter any existing unity, as different groups jockey for position. Leaders in this position typically tend to use their authority and power in a repressive rather than productive manner. It saps the company’s available resources and diminishes its productivity.
A notable and well-publicized example of this practice is Al Dunlap (Sunbeam). “In Dunlap’s presence, knees trembled and stomachs churned. Underlings feared the torrential harangue that Dunlap could unleash at any moment. At his worst, he became viciously profane, even violent. Executives said he would throw papers or furniture, bang his hands on his desk, and shout so ferociously that a manager’s hair would be blown back by the stream of air that rushed from Dunlap’s mouth. “Hair spray day” became a code phrase among execs, signifying a potential tantrum.”
My research of some of the poorest performing leaders substantiated that many also made questionable and highly risky financial decisions that placed their companies at risk, and placed the well being of shareholders far above the interests of their customers.
“In the service of a quick buck, he [Al Dunlap – Sunbeam] imposed brutal pressure on honest people, placing their careers, incomes, health insurance, and pensions at stake. He made impossible, irrational demands that were ruinous to the long-term prosperity of companies. The leadership style he practiced was inconsistent with good business, thoughtful management, a strong economy….” 
Jon Huntsman (Huntsman Chemical) observed.
“People often offer as an excuse for lying, cheating, and fraud that they were pressured into it by high expectations or that “everyone does it.” Some claim that it is the only way they can keep up. Those excuses sound better than the real reasons they choose the improper course: arrogance, power trips, greed, and lack of backbone, all of which are equal-opportunity afflictions.” 
The great leaders were committed to others and demanded excellence from all. They forged building blocks of growth and were proactive as they mastered execution of their plans within all levels of their organization. They demanded accountability on all levels and did not delegate this responsibility. They held themselves equally accountable, and adhered to the same standards as were established for the lowest level employee. This typically appealed to their personal sense of fairness. Rudolph Giuliani noted:
“More than anyone, leaders should welcome being held accountable. Nothing builds confidence in a leader more than a willingness to take responsibility for what happens during his watch. One might add that nothing builds a stronger case for holding employees to a high standard than a boss who holds himself to even higher ones.”
These leaders were passionate, and demonstrated a high level of personal drive and resilience. These factors made it possible to build emotional connections with key constituencies, especially needed during difficult periods.
Finally, one of the most notable distinctions of great leaders was found in their restraint and self-control. It inspired confidence in all key constituencies.
A key example of this trait was the composure and stature James Burke (Johnson & Johnson) displayed during the Tylenol scare. His actions are attributed to saving that brand and securing the company’s impeccable reputation.
- Yeh Raymond T. with Yeh Stephanie H., The Art of Business: In the Footsteps of Giants (Zero Time Publishing, 2004)
- Knufken, Drea, 10 Reasons People Hate Carly Fiorina (Business Pundit) June 18, 2008
- Hafner, Katie, Fred Smith: The Entrepreneur Redux (Inc. Magazine, June 1, 1984)
- Sheridan John H., 1997 Technology Leader of the Year Andy Grove: Building an Information Age Legacy (Industry Week, April 19-21, 2010)
- Byrne, John A., Chainsaw (Harper Business, 1999, 2003) p 353-354
- Gallagher Bill, Once a Bum, Always a Bum (Niagara Falls Reporter, January 29, 2002)
- Huntsman, Jon M., Winners Never Cheat Even in Difficult Times (Wharton School Publishing, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 2008) p 35
- Giuliani, Rudolph, Leadership (Hyperion, New York, 2002) p 70
For more information on this topic, refer to Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It by Timothy F. Bednarz (Majorium Business Press, Stevens Point, WI 2011).