Willie’s Blog Posts

Leading Through The Pandemic Crisis: The Trust Factor

Five ways leaders can maintain a high level of trust in a crisis

Trust is a vital requirement in any leadership endeavor. But the coronavirus pandemic has raised the stakes to historic levels. We are faced with conditions that are mortally threatening, fraught with uncertainty, and shifting rapidly. In these frightening circumstances, trust in our leaders has become the indispensable factor.

The situation is entirely new, with few guidelines from the past. We have urgent questions: “When will the number of cases reach their peak? Will the healthcare system be able to cope? When will there be a diagnostic test, an antibody test, a therapy, a vaccine? When will things return to normal? The common answer from the experts is, “We don’t know. We have not seen this before. We are in learning mode.”  Meanwhile, during the shutdown, a vast number of people have lost their livelihood and wish for a rapid opening up of the economy. We are navigating a delicate balance between safety and financial security.

A loss of trust in our leaders amidst this crisis would have devastating consequences. This raises the question: What are the essential building blocks of trust?

Some years back, I was advising a professional services firm whose vision was to become a “trusted advisor” to its clients. I was asked to research the subject of trust and come up with a set of factors that were concrete and measurable. Trust is a complex field with nuanced answers. Nevertheless, I distilled what I learned into 5 key pillars of trust. My client applied these elements successfully in their client service model. My investigation revealed that we will trust our leaders if we believe the following 5 things are true about them:

They understand my needs

Leadership is not about power; it is about service. The first task of a leader is to “tune in” to the needs and expectations of his followers.

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison and elected president in South Africa, he faced the prospect of a racial conflict born of years of resentment. Yet against all odds he achieved a peaceful transition to a representative democracy. He was offering the blacks the chance to participate as equal citizens, but at the same time he recognized that the whites were afraid they would face a switch from being the oppressors to becoming the oppressed. Acting on this insight, Mandela took steps to demonstrate his genuine love for all South Africa’s citizens and his determination to create a “rainbow nation.”

His most dramatic action, seen by millions on TV, was his enthusiastic support for the almost all-white South African rugby team when they won the world cup in 1995. It was a hugely unifying moment. Mandela saw that “The struggle was not so much about liberating the blacks from bondage, it was about liberating white people from fear,” according to commentator Tokyo Sexwale.  Mandela’s understanding of the concerns of his fellow citizens was a pivotal factor in his majestic achievement.

They have the skills to solve my problem

Empathy alone is not sufficient. Leaders must have the ability to act on it. They must demonstrate competence.

The current pandemic calls for mastery of a special kind of competence: adaptive planning in the face of fast-moving events fraught with risk and uncertainty. Former military general and US president Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is everything.” In dynamic conditions it is the planning process that matters above all else. This demands a system of constant assessment and re-assessment based on a fearless, fact-based analysis of emerging realities.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo provides daily briefings on the coronavirus, showing trends, explaining their significance, defining the learning, and describing what must be done, when, and by whom. Polls show that the citizens of NY State feel that their destiny rests in capable hands.

In a crisis, it is a mistake to try and go it alone as the “heroic leader.” People support what they help to build. I recently read how a CEO of a manufacturing business involved his employees in creating the right solutions. His only injunction was: “Please work together to build a working environment in which you feel safe.” They were amazingly creative. They built a tent at the front entrance, and as employees passed through it at the beginning and end of the day, they were sprayed with a special sanitizer they themselves had devised in the plant. Disinfected vans transported everyone to work and home again, so that public transportation was avoided. Finally, they introduced ingenious ways of practicing social distancing at the plant while maintaining productivity. Everyone took pride of ownership in their plan.

They care about my success

Effective leaders are selfless, always placing the interests of their followers above their own. Motive is determinative in issues of trust, and people feel betrayed when a leader is seen to be pursuing self-serving aims. It is in our actions that we reveal our true intentions. “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say,” said the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson.

On a personal level, I was deeply influenced by a patriotic act on the part of my father during World War Two. There was no conscription in my native South Africa, yet in 1942 my father decided to volunteer and leave his family to serve a cause he believed in. As a young boy I vividly remember listening to the discussions around the kitchen table. My mother kept asking why he was prepared to put himself in harm’s way in a war so far away from home. His simple reply was, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

Mercifully, my father returned safely at the end of the war. Because of his selfless example of service to others, I have remained keenly aware of the importance of moral courage – stepping up to a challenge based on principle rather than expediency, and facing the risks involved.

Former New York City mayor Ed Koch was known for spontaneously asking strangers he encountered, “How am I doing?” I think he was asking the wrong question. It centered on him. I suggest the right question should have been, “How are you doing?” And then to listen intently to the answers.

They keep their promises

Consistency lies at the heart of effective leadership. Good leaders keep their promises, large and small. If we break our small promises, we won’t be believed when we make large ones.

Promises should be made with care, not bravado. During my time as a CEO, it became necessary to sell off one of our subsidiary companies. The question was whether to tell the affected employees in advance or simply wait until the sale was a fait accompli. The arguments went in both directions. I came to the view that communicating upfront was the best course despite the risks of destabilizing the business. These things are seldom kept secret anyhow, and rumors produce a perverted version of the truth. Then, when the time comes to let them know the details, distrust has already set in.

But what promises could I offer them? At the meeting I told them that I was unable to guarantee continuity of employment by a new owner. But I did make this promise: I would try my hardest to find the buyer most likely to keep the people, provided I could also serve the shareholders with a reasonable price for the business. It was a difficult meeting, but the employees understood the logic and appreciated the promises I made. The business remained steady.

Ultimately, we found a buyer who was prepared to keep most, but not all the employees. The outcome was not perfect, but the employees saw that I had tried my best as promised. The resulting goodwill was very gratifying, and all the other employees in the company shared in the positive feeling that we had behaved in a principled way.

They are truth-tellers

To tell the truth is to have faith in your people. Leaders sometimes believe that they can handle bad news, but that the people below them are unable to do so. This assumption is not only arrogant; it is false. Character and fortitude are not functions of rank. People can usually handle unpleasant truths, but have difficulty dealing with the withholding of truth.

The golden rule, particularly in times of crisis is to tell the unvarnished truth – no sugar coating, no spin. Here again I cite the example of Governor Andrew Cuomo. New York State has become the epicenter of the pandemic. The situation is dire. In his daily briefings Cuomo always emphasizes that he will start with what the data says; good bad or indifferent. Only then will he offer his opinion and talk about the decisions that must follow. “The shared truth must guide us,” he insists.

There is a need to guard against the confirmation bias and the allure of preconceived ideas. It is easy to deceive through omission. Picking out favorable data and leaving out or de-emphasizing negative information distorts truth and misdirects behavior. This can undermine the ability of citizens to successfully manage their personal lives through the crisis.

Leaders must have the courage to make tough decisions in the face of uncertainty. The pandemic is moving rapidly, and the realities change daily. It is essential to adjust promptly to evolving circumstances. Making the wrong calls can cost lives, but delay can be even more costly.

Mistakes are inevitable. But it is important for leaders to have the humility to admit their mistakes. Denmark seems to be managing the pandemic with relative success. One reason is cultural. Citizens trust their government. When their prime minister, Mette Fredericksen, laid out the guidelines she said, “This is a new situation to all of us. Will I make mistakes? Definitely! Will you? Yes, you also. But we must listen and learn from each other.”

Herein lies the lesson. Admitting mistakes presents an opportunity to learn from them. Burying mistakes or denying responsibility destroys that opportunity. The goal is to ensure that the value of the learning will be bigger than the cost of the mistake. That’s what progress is made of.

TRUTH and TRUST – there’s only one letter that’s different in those two words, and maybe that’s because the one leads to the other. By striving for honesty in the face of adversity we strengthen the bonds that help us all get through the crisis together.

Posted by Willie Pietersen at 10:22 AM

Leading Up: The Neglected Competency

It is useful to think about leadership as comprising three dimensions: leading down, leading across, and leading up.

At a recent seminar, I asked participants to define their company’s biggest barriers to success.   The main impediment, they said, was their top leaders’ immunity to feedback. “They just won’t listen to new ideas”, “They are living in yesterday’s world”, “They think they have it all figured out and simply want us to execute.”

My initial reaction was to lay sole responsibility on the participants themselves. There is no “they” in leadership I argued. The question: “Why don’t they …” will produce no results except victimhood. Effective leaders take personal responsibility to make the right things happen. “You simply have to be better at leading up”, I insisted.

We spent the rest of the seminar wrestling with the challenges of leading up – what the military calls telling truth to power. As we deepened our exploration, the reality emerged that subordinates indeed have a key role to play but cannot achieve this entirely on their own. Their leaders need to be willing participants. Indeed, they need to champion the practice.

I’m sure many readers will recognize this failure of senior executives to learn from below as a common source of employee dissatisfaction and lack of organizational competitiveness. Let’s step back and examine the issue from a systems perspective.

Leading from the middle 

To begin with, it’s useful to think about leadership as comprising three dimensions: leading down, leading across and leading up. Popular portrayals of leadership start with the assumption that leaders lead from the top and that mobilizing “followers” is the main challenge. This heroic view of leadership, based solely on this one-dimensional factor, is a flawed concept.

I suggest that a more accurate perspective is that we all lead from the middle. Regardless of status, we owe a duty to a cause or entity larger than ourselves. Leadership is not about power, it is about service, Peter Drucker emphasized. Apart from dictators, who exercise power through coercion, effective leaders are skilled at influencing in all three directions. Think of leaders such as Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi, who dedicated themselves to a noble purpose, and not only inspired followers but constantly built coalitions of cooperation across political boundaries. CEOs of course are responsible to their boards, but the successful ones help their boards think clearly about the big issues, ensure their employees are focused and engaged, and constantly promote collaboration and teamwork across functions.

Much has been written about leading down and leading across without formal authority, but the challenges of leading up have been largely ignored. This dimension is at least as important as the other two, but in many ways more problematical because it is fraught with psychological sensitivities, questions of loyalty, and perceived challenges to authority. In view of these complications, success requires the creation of deeply rooted cultural norms which promote the practice – a social contract, if you like.

Why is leading up so important? 

The willingness of leaders to accept feedback is not a just a source of personal frustration. It goes to the essence of being a successful learning organization. During my 20 years as a CEO I recall the dangers of what I call the “curse of power”. This takes two forms. First, as we rise to higher positions in a hierarchy, we become increasingly more isolated from what is happening at ground level. Second, there is a natural tendency for subordinates to tell you what they think you want to hear. In the absence of effective antidotes, leaders can become blind to truth and this sets an example that infects the entire organization.

As I have written in my other articles, I believe the only sustainable competitive advantage in today’s volatile environment is the ability to create an organization capable of ongoing learning and renewal. To thrive, companies must be geared to promote the flow of ideas down, across and up through the organization and operate as one integrated brain.

Leaders must unfailingly set the example. Dr. Ash Tewari, pioneering surgeon and Systems Chair of Urology at Mount Sinai hospital, diligently practices this type of interactive learning with his team. Everyone rapidly gets to know and adopt the best practices everyone else has learned. Tewari himself is the keenest learner on the team. One of his commandments: learning demands “no subordination”.

Arguably the most important learning is that which occurs from the ground up. When that circuit is blocked, an organization faces a survival problem. According to a Gallup poll, companies that listen to their employees are 21% more profitable than the competition.

Consider the current travails in the Boeing corporation arising from the design flaws of the 737 Max that caused two fatal crashes. During the ensuing investigations, it became clear that a number of engineers close to the design of the aircraft saw the problems and voiced deep concern about the potential consequences.  But the stark reality of impending disaster never traveled effectively to the top leaders – who were consumed by cost and timing issues – until too late in the process. As a result, Boeing has taken a massive hit to its profitability and reputation.

Or think about the collapse of General Motors. In the 1980s GM had captured more than 50% of the North American auto market and seemed unassailable. Complacency set in and product quality slipped. Toyota and Honda seized the opportunity with superbly reliable cars at reasonable prices. GM responded with cost cutting measures as their volume went into a steep decline. Salespeople dealing with customers saw clearly that customer defections were based on GM’s quality deficit. But top management remained deaf to this brutal reality and stuck doggedly to their cost cutting strategy. Eventually GM’s market share dropped to under 20%, the company went broke and had to be rescued by the US government.

An analogy is useful here. In military operations, the quality of intelligence strongly influences the chances of victory. The most reliable intelligence is that which is gathered closest to the enemy and realities of the battlefield. And then everything depends on this information traveling accurately and speedily to the commanding officers, thus placing them in a position to make timely competitive choices.

In the same way, the most accurate and current information about a company’s market performance lies with those closest to the interface with customers and competitors. If those insights don’t find their way swiftly and without distortion to the top decision-makers, organizations’ intelligence systems will become impaired and they will risk losing their competitive edge.

I am an unabashed Starbucks fan. It’s hard for me to start a class without my caffeine “fix” and their coffee is always fresh and rich in taste. But beyond that, it is a downright pleasant experience getting my coffee at my favorite spot. Starbucks is founded on the notion of the customer “experience.” Their winning proposition is, “We are not in the coffee business serving people, we are in the people business serving coffee.”  

In 2011 an imaginative barista decided to enhance that personal experience by writing the first names of customers on cups, instead of just calling out the name of the drink that had been ordered. The idea raced to headquarters and today this simple practice happens four million times a day at 30,000 locations worldwide.

Organizations need a new social contract

Effective upward feedback processes are unlikely to occur without a negotiated commitment to a social contract between subordinates and their bosses.

At the start of each new hierarchical relationship the parties need to sit down and have a candid discussion about how they will work together. Subordinates should explicitly seek and secure permission to provide upward feedback, so that this doesn’t occur by surprise or in inappropriate ways. In the best of worlds, bosses should themselves initiate this discussion. In existing relationships, it is also necessary for this “reset” to take place. The manner in which this feedback process will occur needs to be settled and agreed.

These feedback sessions should never be framed as a challenge to authority or expressions of disloyalty. And always avoid promoting any suggestion in pursuit of your personal agenda. This motive invariably reveals itself and destroys the trust necessary for mutual learning. The only agenda should be the dedication to learning and discovery of truth. This process should be reinforced and socialized through organization-wide cultural norms.

I think of the great example set by David Ogilvy, the founder of Ogilvy and Mather, the global advertising company. Every year he convened a conference bringing together executives from every part of the world. In his keynote speech, he continuously stressed the need for sharing ideas across boundaries and upwards so that the clients in every country could expect to receive the best ideas from O&M globally, not just locally. Every year he exhorted his organization to practice what he called “divine discontent” – the dedication to identify what was not working well, but always with a recommendation on how to do it better. I can’t think of better advice on how to do upward feedback. I know from experience how dispiriting it feels to hear complaints from subordinates without suggestions on how to solve the problem.

What about coaching?

Let’s deal with a rather delicate aspect of leading up: when the advice we want to offer is not about the operations of the firm, but the personal style of our boss. This is tricky terrain.

Once, during my days as a CEO, a subordinate brought me some bad news, but somewhat late in the evolution of the problem. “Why tell me so late?” I railed. I got a straight answer. “Willie, to be honest, we sometimes find you to be rather intimidating.” Wow, that was a shock to the system, but a valuable one. I had no idea this was a problem.

At the next executive committee meeting I asked for more detailed feedback. It was about the aggressive way I posed questions, I was told.  I didn’t feel aggressive, I was simply looking for good answers, I thought. But it was perceived as intimidating by others and that’s what mattered. And it mattered a lot, because it discouraged honest feedback. Not only did I take that guidance to heart, we agreed at that meeting on a process to be truth tellers to help each other be better leaders. It was a real turning point.

Leading up is a two-way street

Leading up effectively is not easy to pull off. But I think we owe a duty to help each other learn and grow regardless of rank. We all have our blind spots. When I look back on my corporate career, the subordinates I valued most were those who helped me grow as a leader.

The burden of leading our leaders is a shared one. Bosses must set the example by issuing the invitation for honest feedback from below and be willing to learn from it. Subordinates, in turn, should take on the responsibility to elicit that invitation. For them, the golden rules are “divine discontent” and the courage and compassion to tell truth to power.


Posted by Willie Pietersen at 4:44 PM