There are times when leaders are faced with an untenable situation. On the one hand, they have to take risks to innovate and to make hard decisions in order to succeed in the current environment. On the other hand, they have to keep stockholders, boards of directors and government regulators comfortable by not rocking the boat beyond "expectations" -- as apparently "expectations" are the primary currency on Wall Street. If they do the wrong thing, we tend to scream that they are unethical idiots. If they do the right thing, we charge them with pandering to the press. It might just be that, in some cases, the leaders have the courage not to care what we think but to actually do what they believe to be the right thing regardless. Take Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric ( GE) as one example. I am a big fan of Immelt's because I appreciate his apparent transparency in decision-making, his willingness to make commitments but not allow his ego to stop him if new commitments need to be made, and his openness to respond to challenges in an honest way. I may be the only columnist who has ever mentioned Immelt's name without mentioning the other guy's name (former CEO? You know the guy), mainly because this is one of his ongoing challenges as well. Immelt has been criticized most recently for apparently flip-flopping on his commitment to (a) avoid raising new capital and (b) cutting GE dividends. What I think is most impressive is his willingness to essentially say: "These actions are necessary for long-term survival regardless of the flack I'll take over changing my mind."
Further, Immelt has never been one to try to hide his concerns with the ethics of corporate American leadership. He was one of the first to give up his bonus, nearly $12 million, although many have argued it was a publicity stunt. If so, it was a pretty expensive one since there was no pressure from anywhere to force the bonus refusal. (By the way, the other guy who used to run GE has not offered to give back any of HIS bonuses because of the situation he left behind.) Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, just got back from a trip spending a week in a distribution center in Kentucky. Bezos claims that, when top management is faced with a difficult, complex or controversial decision that has to be made, they ask "What's better for the customer?" And of course, who better to have a feel for what the customer may want than the workers who spend their time fulfilling customer orders. Afterall, Amazon doesn't actually write the books, they distribute them. That's what they do. Bezos in a warehouse? Clearly a publicity stunt? Maybe, except for the fact that (a) every new Amazon.com ( AMZN) employee has to spend time in fulfillment center in their first year and (b) all employees must do two days of service every two years. In the Harvard Business Review (2007), Bezos said he has to fulfill this requirement as well. While this is interesting, note this -- no interviews or photographs were granted during this one-week stint in Kentucky. None. It could actually be that he was there because he felt it was the right thing to do, not because he cared what the columnists would say.
Wells Fargo ( WFC) CEO John Stumpf gave a preview of how he was going to handle the 2009 crisis in his amazingly open and honest letter to shareholders in the 2008 Annual Report. In it, Stumpf states that the focus for Wells Fargo is straightforward: Management honesty, lack of complexity, building value, valuing team members, serving customers and integrating Wachovia ( WB). While it might be encouraging to see the recent positive results from Wells Fargo as a potential light at the end of the tunnel for the banking industry, it is important not to overestimate the value that strong leadership brings to the specific bank of Wells Fargo. The observations that can be made about these leaders, and the actions that others should consider in their own leadership context, are the following: Courage: Each of these leaders, and those around them, exhibit the courage to make the decisions they feel they need to make regardless of the immediate and short-term reactions of the market, media or public. They know in their heart-of-hearts that they are making the right decisions for the right reasons based on the information they have available at the time. Focus: Each of these leaders has also shown an ability to narrow their concern and their attention to a nearly single-minded focus. Whether it is integrating an acquisition, staying true to their roots, or forging a new corporate culture, each of these leaders knows what he is trying to accomplish and is not swayed from the overall future.
Engagement: The other interesting aspect of these leaders, and leaders like them, is that they are not going it alone. All three of the leaders mentioned above are known for their efforts to engage other leaders and employees in the future of their organization. Companies do not magically deliver results --the work of the employees within those companies makes the difference between success and failure. Effective leaders today do not leave out those who are below them in the hierarchy but depend on their involvement, ideas and engagement to make it in the future. Will Wells Fargo, Amazon and GE rise to the top of all financial expectations in the future? Who knows, there are too many variables at play to say. Will Bezos, Immelt and Stumpf prove to be the iconic leaders of today? Probably not but primarily because they don't care if they are idols or not. They care about what they have been called to do -- make the right decisions within their role and lead their companies the right way. As long as they focus on their ability to lead their organizations, and let the writers and the media worry about the hoopla, they will deserve our respect regardless of the outcome.