Effective Leadership – A Painful, Public Lesson

by Cynthia on September 14, 2010

Two recent editions of Joe Nocera’s Talking Business column in the New York Times cast light on a leadership team that appears to have, at least temporarily, lost touch with True North. One addresses the “real” reason for the recent firing of Hewlett-Packard’s chief executive, Mark Hurd, while the second offers the view that HP’s “bumbling” board has “shot itself in the foot” by filing a lawsuit against Mr. Hurd in reaction to his being named Co-president at Oracle.

Making several interesting and provocative points, these columns remind us that although HP experienced dramatic financial gains during his tenure, the motivation behind the firing of Mark Hurd was attributed by HP’s Board to expense report irregularities related to a questionable and unsubstantiated  “sexual harassment scandal.” Yet, Mr. Nocero contends that “Mr. Hurd’s supposed peccadillo and expense records were a smoke screen for the real reason the board parted company with an executive they “didn’t trust and employees didn’t like.”

The Cardinal Sins of Leadership

Reportedly, Mr. Hurd recurrently committed a few of the cardinal sins of leadership—mistakes that are almost always difficult, if not impossible, to recover from. For example, Hurd reportedly behaved in a vindictive manner towards members of HP’s staff, forced others to shoulder blame for his own misdeeds, undermined the organization’s culture…and, in the end, lost the support of his people by demonstrating inconsistency between his words and actions. To wit, while severely cutting expenses throughout the organization, Hurd himself did not economize.

At Aperio we caution that some of the most direct and negatively impactful ways a leader can compromise loyalty and commitment are 1) modeling inconsistency between words and actions, 2) undermining dignity and/or identity, and 3) demonstrating patterns of behavior that fail to align with professed cultural values. According to Mr. Nocero, Mr. Hurd consistently committed each of these mistakes.

Yet, if the reporting of HP’s Board’s actions is on target, Mr. Hurd was not alone in fostering leadership breakdowns. By attributing Mr. Hurd’s firing to irregularities unrelated to the “real reasons” behind its decision to exit him and following his appointment to Oracle leadership team with a lawsuit of questionable enforceability in California, the board undermined its own credibility. By overtly and vindictively choosing to damage Mr. Hurd’s dignity and identity in a very public manner, the board sent the message to HP’s employees and customers that they, too, have much to learn about effective leadership. Apparently willing to compromise HP’s professed values to achieve a specific end goal, HP’s directors telegraphed the message that values are fine as long as they do not stand in the way of progress or retribution.

The importance of integrity

If Mr. Nocero’s assertions and assessments are grounded, an argument can be made that both Mr. Hurd and HP’s board acted outside integrity. The basic notion of integrity, an essential aspect of effective leadership, implies that speaking and actions must be aligned with values and guiding principles. By choosing to model inconsistency between their own words and actions, both set negative examples.

In letting Mr. Hurd go in a way that undermined his dignity and identity and failed to match their own actions with their declared values, the board unwittingly compromised its own identity and sowed seeds of doubt about its willingness to demonstrate integrity under duress. If a board wants a leader who demonstrates integrity, the board needs to demonstrate integrity. If a board intends to foster a culture of integrity, it must model integrity. If a board is committed to clear standards of behavior, it must have the courage to dismiss employees whose patterns of behavior are inconsistent with those of the culture and either transparently declare the breakdown driving the dismissal or organize an exit strategy that preserves dignity for all involved without compromising core values.

While it is possible for an organization to realize short-term gains with leadership that fails to model the core values and behavior patterns integral to the culture it aspires to, the longer-term consequences of inconsistency between words and action are costly and can seriously compromise the focus and efficiency of the organization. And so HP’s board, after taking action that sounds as if it was justified by Mr. Hurd’s leadership style and practices, now finds itself the target of substantial second-guessing and a severely compromised public identity. And, no doubt, the organization is experiencing substantial internal distraction as employees process and debate these events.

Accountability in Action

Adding insult to injury, many reports of these unfortunate events attribute the motivation behind the board’s related communications and actions to advice given by a public relations executive retained by the board to advise them in affecting and communicating the parting of ways with Mr. Hurd with minimal damage to the company. In a situation of this sort, powerful leaders publicly declare ownership of actions taken and sincerely apologize when and if actions are off-base. To attribute motivation to a third party, regardless of how ill-conceived his/her advice might have been, is to highlight and reinforce systemic breakdowns in effective leadership.

HP is one of the most venerable names in American corporate history. No doubt it will recover from this unfortunate sequence of events. In doing so, let us hope that the renown integrity of the culture built by Hewitt and Packard will thunder back to center stage and set an example for all to follow in the years that lie ahead.

In the meantime, there is much in this still unfolding tale for you and I to reflect upon and consider. How important is integrity to us? Do we have the courage and discipline to act consistent with our values regardless of how uncomfortable circumstances might render us? Are we willing to own our actions in times of negative stress as well as success? Do we accept accountability when our intentions and actions backfire?

At the end of the day, our identity and the loyalty and respect we evoke in others will be determined by how we answer and act upon these questions. As an early mentor once said, your integrity is all you have. Go forth with courage, nurture and protect it!

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