Lead the Way

Doing What's Right

No matter how outgoing or introverted they are, Useem says, in America's crowded and chaotic corporate climate, quality leaders also focus on "making their words stick"--not only delivering messages, but also ensuring they resonate with employees, especially on issues related to ethics. Using symbols can be crucial to making words stick and to defining corporate culture. After taking over Salomon Brothers in the early 1990s, a period when the financial firm was consumed by scandal, savvy investor Warren Buffett gathered Salomon employees together. Buffett announced he was appointing himself as chief compliance officer, gave all employees his home phone number, and told them to call if they saw examples of malfeasance at work. Buffett was not expecting hundreds of calls, but that statement signified he would make his words stick, and that ethics would be much more than just a corporate motto, explains Useem.

Learning From Enron
What other lessons can you take away from the recent corporate debacles of Enron, Tyco, et al? How about:

Creating an ethical, well-defined corporate culture also allows superior leaders to lure the types of employees who will perpetuate high ethical standards. "Everyone is cynical now about what corporate leaders say," says Chowdhury. "If you can make employees feel that they have a shared destiny in the company, you can get the best people, people who are coming because of the company's vision and who will share their innovations with the company." Indeed, a survey conducted by research firm Robert Starch revealed more respondents would take a lesser-paying job at Ben & Jerry's, a company with an image of allowing employees to share in its destiny, over a higher-paying job at Procter & Gamble.

Book It!
Find Valuable Leadership Lessons Within the Pages of These Literary Gems.

Scrolling through the business section of Amazon.com, you might find hundreds of how-to books on successful leadership. But most management specialists believe history tomes, biographies and other books that don't directly advise people about leadership provide more worthwhile reading. Some books recommended by experts and executives include:

  • Into Thin Air (Anchor Books): Jon Krakauer's account of a failed 1996 attempt on Mount Everest that ended in the deaths of several climbers. Michael Useem, director of the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change, believes Into Thin Air succinctly summarizes some of the issues leaders face--when to act or not, how to operate in a hostile environment, making your words stick--and illustrates the potential consequences of poor leadership.
  • The Guns of August (Ballantine Books): Several leadership experts cited Barbara Tuchman's history of how Europe blundered into the First World War as a volume that gives tips to leaders about the value of obtaining the best information, remaining self-effacing and not allowing pride to dominate decision-making.
  • Jack: Straight from the Gut (Warner Books): Though the star of former General Electric CEO Jack Welch has dimmed, his autobiography still shines as inspiration, says Subir Chowdhury, author of The Power of Six Sigma (Dearborn Trade). Chowdhury believes leaders of small and large businesses can learn by reading Welch's response to his own crucible experiences, which included growing up with learning disabilities.

There is, however, one exception to this rule. Many experts swear by The Practice of Management (HarperBusiness), a 1954 book by management guru Peter Drucker that remains relevant today and contains lessons on empowering employees, tolerating and encouraging innovative failure, and other key leadership attributes.

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This article was originally published in the March 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Lead the Way.

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