From the CEO: As Good as the Last Promise Kept

When there is trust in what you say, there will be belief in what you do.“What can I do to make – and be – the change I want to see in the world?”

A mother brought her son to a well-respected leader, asking him to cure the boy of his obsession with sugar. The man listened and said, “Bring your son back in a week, and I will speak to him.”

A week later, the mother returned with her son. The leader, Mahatma Gandhi, told the boy, “Stop eating sweets. They are not good for you.” Realizing that was it – this great leader was not going to say any more – the mother was understandably confused. “You could have told him that last week. Why did you have us come back?” she asked.

“Last week,” Gandhi admitted, “I, too, was eating a great deal of sugar.”

Therein is the heart of leadership:
Change begins in the mirror. To lead others you must first lead yourself.

Leaders must be willing to look, unblinking, into a mirror of self-awareness and ask themselves, “What can I do to make – and be – the change I want to see in the world?” 

To lead others – to motivate and inspire, creating alignment behind a bigger, broader purpose that makes a difference – the leader must be willing to make an honest self-assessment:

A leader is only as good as the last promise kept.

Effective, self-aware leaders acknowledge what they don’t know. Ineffective leaders, on the other hand, don’t know anything about everything (but woe to those who think they do).

As our research at Korn/Ferry demonstrates, leadership demands an insatiable appetite to expand one’s knowledge and experience. Successful leaders continue to learn, bend and flex as their world changes. In other words, they are learning agile.

At Korn/Ferry, we believe that learning agility (the ability to learn from experiences and to apply that learning to new or first-time situations) is the No. 1 predictor of leadership success – more accurate than IQ and EQ (emotional intelligence), education level or even leadership competencies. As a leader expands her knowledge and capabilities, she is better equipped to deliver change by linking an organization’s purpose, its reason for being, with her followers’ desire to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Other things being equal, self-aware leaders balance self-confidence and humility. They are realistic not only about their own strengths and weaknesses, but about the organization’s flaws as well. These leaders understand that the difference between being No. 1 and No. 2 is not constant; therefore, the way to improve the organization is by improving themselves.

Knowledge is what you know, wisdom is acknowledging what you don’t know.

The “Peter Principle,” introduced by Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull in their book of the same name, asserts that workers rise to their level of incompetence – meaning they get promotions until they are beyond their capabilities and become ineffective. Kenneth P. De Meuse, a former colleague of mine at Korn/Ferry, asserts that today’s workplace has created a new principle, one that is even more insidious. He calls it:

The “Paul Principle”: Employees do not need to get promoted to become incompetent; that can happen in their current jobs.

How? Because they do not grow, adapt and evolve as their jobs become more complex, more ambiguous and more technologically demanding. The same holds true for organizational leaders. Unless they learn new competencies and behaviors, they risk going the way of inkwells, eight-tracks and typewriters.

Just as Gandhi had to look inward before enacting outward change, leaders set the tone and the expectation, particularly around self-awareness and self-improvement.

Self-awareness and honesty go hand in hand.

Leadership is not defined only by what one says and does, but – equally important – by what is not said and not done. True leaders are like the first responders and good Samaritans who stop at a highway accident to help, versus those who only turn away, grateful that they’re not the ones involved. Leaders are instruments of change.

The account-ability you want to see in others starts
with you. Even today, why is change so elusive? It certainly can’t be blamed on a lack of connectivity, the ability to communicate change broadly and instantaneously. Technological wizardry allows us to connect with most of the planet, anytime; to send pictures via Snapchat that self-destruct in 10 seconds (isn’t the purpose of a picture to capture a moment, not destroy it?); or, soon, to sport wearable computers, Dick Tracy-style.

Maybe the problem is a lack of attention by an audience bewildered by the Great Recession’s opening act, which shockingly revealed two decades of excess in the West and, now, the paralysis of nations that were once global leaders. Or maybe, in the newer, flatter world order, the audience is simply fatigued, having ridden a stationary bike for the past four years – pedaling faster and faster, but not advancing. Maybe we are waiting for someone else to be the instrument of change.

If you are waiting for others, you will be waiting a long time.

Change you believe in may cascade down, but change achieved must bubble up – starting inside-out.

In this issue of Briefings

At Korn/Ferry, we say to lead is to know what to do when you don’t know what to do. In those instances, there is only one thing to do: Look in the mirror before you gaze out the window. If my dad told me once, he told me a thousand times: Let the record speak for itself. Actions truly do speak louder than words. That’s been accurate throughout history and is truer today than ever. Change begins within, with the leader’s “do/say” ratio, which can never drop below one. (Do what you say, say what you mean.)

After all, a leader is only as good as the last promise kept – in which case, one’s actions will truly inspire.

So what are the promises in this issue of Briefings on Talent & Leadership? We call it the Big Think issue and the promise is new ideas. In this issue, David Berreby writes about “gamification,” which means using games, electronic and otherwise, to achieve organizational goals such as education or health-related behavior modification. Glenn Rifkin has two articles on what the humanities can teach us about leadership – with some interesting examples. A.G. Lafley, one of Procter & Gamble’s most successful CEOs, studied philosophy in college. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went back to graduate school to study Irish poetry. The point is, broadening the mind is a prerequisite to lead. And, Chris O’Dea writes in this issue how the economic downturn has led to an upturn in enrollment for science-related classes. Also in this issue, wearable computers. But watch out! Pedestrians distracted by their smartphones have been known to step into trouble.

Authors

  • Gary Burnison

    Chief Executive Officer

    Bio >