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Effective—Not Ideological—Leadership is the Key to Company Success

The best CEOs focus more on being effective than on being the smartest person in the room. In fact, CEOs who insist on being right often go down in flames, because they are unable to create enough alignment to move their organizations forward. Here are a few lessons in leadership based on today’s political landscape, from Tom Saporito, chairman and CEO of global consulting firm RHR International.

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My work with company CEOs over the past 35 years has taught me many things about leadership. Foremost among them is that the best CEOs focus more on being effective than on being the smartest person in the room. In fact, CEOs who insist on being right often go down in flames. Why? Because they are unable to create enough alignment to move their organizations forward. With this in mind, I can’t help but reflect on today’s political environment and the contrasting leadership models before us.

I’m not so naïve as to believe in a silver bullet. But I know from experience that effective, not ideological, leadership is the answer. Let me explain.

The U.S. is more divided today over policy, strategy, priorities and culture than it has been in years. The question isn’t about who’s right; the question is, who can lead this country forward?

One doesn’t have to go very far to experience how fed up people are with our political leadership. Now, I’ll grant you, politics is legitimately a battleground of ideology and beliefs. But when ideology—whether conservative or liberal—drives division rather than unification, something is broken.

“50% of Pew respondents say elected officials are unwilling to compromise; 40% believe they are unwilling to stand up for their principles.”

According to a Pew Research poll taken in October, only 19% of Americans say they trust the federal government. This is among the lowest levels in the past 50 years. Furthermore, according to a Monmouth University Poll taken in January, 62 percent of Americans believe that all or most of their fellow citizens are angry with Washington.

Americans are also divided over what approach their representatives should take. Fifty percent say that elected officials unwilling to compromise are the source of the issue, while 40% believe that elected officials who are unwilling to stand up for their principles cause more problems.

We need to focus more on effectiveness than on being right. Now is the time to look to business as a model of leadership. The best CEOs know how to take polarized cultures and create healthy organizations. What do they do? They listen, they form relationships, they build trust, they bring people together to discuss and debate, and they create a climate of problem solving. There are many examples of effective CEOs, but one who stands apart and is relevant to this discussion is Alan Mulally.

When Mulally took over as CEO of Ford Motor Company in September 2006, the automaker was clearly broken. Its stock price was in severe decline and its debt was at junk status. It was widely expected that the company would file for bankruptcy. That didn’t happen though. In two years, Mulally transformed Ford into a profitable enterprise.

The essence of Mulally’s effectiveness was in his ability to instill a “One Team” mindset. His goal was to get people to believe that they were “all in this together” and to work across the silos as “One Ford,” which in itself became a mantra repeated in every meeting, conversation, email and interview.

Maybe our political leaders, particularly as we come into this presidential election, can look to effective CEOs for an answer to our leadership challenges. Maybe they can become more riveted on creating an environment of unification rather than standing on ideology and perpetuating a sense of division.

Look to our most successful CEOs. They will tell you that to be effective, the “my way or no way” mindset must be the first thing to go. Yes, they each have their deep beliefs and points of view, but they remain focused on finding alignment. And though they don’t always attain complete consensus, they’re still able to pull people together and get things done.

About Dr. Thomas J. Saporito

Dr. Thomas J. Saporito
Dr. Thomas J. Saporito (tsaporito@rhrinternational.com) is chairman and CEO of RHR International, a global firm committed to the development of top management leadership.