We call it vision when it works. But what possessed the leadership of Volkswagen to systematically falsify emissions reports? What drives a magnate with unruly hair (so much so that it has its own meme) to toss his pompadour in the ring and make a loud bid for the presidency? Why would the CEO of a BigPharma company think a five thousand percent price hike on a medication was justifiable? Is it really the same impulse that prompts a smiling, trailer-dwelling CEO to transform his online retail site into a model of the workplace 3.0? I’m of course referring to Tony Hsieh’s holacracy in the place of hierarchy strategem: Think Different circa pretty much now.
What drove Hsieh, as the press gushed (drinking the punch), was a fear of being bored. To me his biggest legacy is not everyone getting to feel the veneer of equal, but that a mindset does indeed drive leadership. But also: the perception of what is good leadership and bad leadership is inevitably measured by results. If the results are devastating, that same sense of derring-do becomes a characteristic of the damned. Volkswagen’s CEO is out and there are more than 600,000 employees whose level of engagement has just plunged to zero.
What drives leadership is neuroscience; wiring. That’s what drives leaders to be an inspiration to the rest of us or an utter head shaker, or both. It’s their own psychology that brings down a company (and loses it $7.3 billion and a widening, enormous share of the global market) or changes the political game, to the benefit of a nation or not. But there are still two key traits of leadership that will make a workplace instead of breaking it, and we still need to hew to them:
Transparency. Among the forces that cause insomnia in leaders is rigidity. There are leaders who are, simply, too proud to be responsive or adaptive. They refuse to change for the sake of the workplace or the mission; hewing to a dysfunctional model because it is the status quo but also their very survival is entrenched in it. Our brains have built in ways of fighting change, one reason “think different” still seems so radical a concept. But this kind of gravity is the enemy of transparency, without which disasters happen: as well as being unable to adapt to change, they are unable to respond to problems in an innovative way. It’s not innovative to lie. It’s not visionary to be obnoxious, unless it part of a very long, very annoying corporate con.
Emotional intelligence. Buzzword it may be, but another key marker of dysfunctional leadership is crowded out vision entirely. There are leaders too busy to win: those too trapped in the forest to see the trees; overwhelmed, constantly connected, unable to turn off and therefore preventing themselves from being able to work at peak performance or productivity — or inspire the engagement and confidence of their workforce. The whole “I live in a trailer, and it’s really cool” ethos that Hsieh transmitted had an underlying message: being too busy to live is being too busy to lead.
I’ve seen organizations dovetail their internal culture and functionality beautifully only to have a leader quash the effort: there are countless surveys advocating the adoption of tech, for instance, and lamenting the gap between recommendation and implementation. We also know leaders with such a precise and confidence instinct for the next zeitgeist that they simply leapfrog over recalcitrant boards or management strata — and that can work as well.
Now, though, perhaps more than any time before, there are global consequences to faulty leadership — just as profound, if not more, as to good leadership. And if we’re touting talent; the human factor; as the new currency in the world of work, let’s take a page form our own playbook. Opaque leadership is a paradox and a contradiction: Volkswagen’s leader made a travesty of the value of transparency, and probably ruined a legacy brand. So if the new world of work is still based on the same classic, sacred geometry: leaders, and followers, perhaps its time to delve into leadership analytics as well as talent analytics, and make sure we’re all aligned. We can’t change our brains, but we can certainly manage the consequences better.
A version of this was first posted on Forbes.