Leading With Your Life: Why You Are the Job

Last month, Pope Francis was expected to enter an empty confessional booth in St. Peter's Basilica to hear congregants' confessions. Instead, he approached an occupied booth, knelt before the ordinary priest within and began confessing his own sins -- in full public view. He then rose, entered a confessional and set himself to the scheduled task of hearing confessions.

Like many of the gestures for which this Pope has been most praised, this one was not, pragmatically speaking, a significant action: Pope Francis simply confessed his sins before a priest, as his Catholic faith prescribes. But by doing so in public, and in combination with his other very public subversions of Papal tradition -- like choosing a Ford Focus for his personal automobile (though he also takes the bus), or taking selfies with teenagers -- this Pope is demonstrating a principle that I've identified in the best leaders across all kinds of institutions: leading with your life. And it is already defining his effectiveness as a leader. I spend a chapter of my new book exploring how symbolic actions such as these play a major role in a senior leader's ability to cultivate institutional identity, and to steward power effectively and ethically:

When Steve Jobs resigned as CEO of Apple in 2011, Apple shares immediately dropped 5 percent. The reaction was so strong because Jobs had embodied Apple's ethos. His creative, controlled persona had begotten the cultural DNA of his organization. [...] Leading with your life is not a normative platitude. It is a descriptive reality. Leaders like Jobs don't just tell their organization's story; they live it. And in this way, they communicate a narrative to their employees, consumers, and the public--whether it be the plight of the underdog, a history of innovation, a period of frugality before a return to full strength, or a dedication to employee care. Extraordinary leaders do more than verbalize; they personify.

While the majority of leaders today are not as closely identified with their organizations as Jobs was, every leader who aspires to make a significant difference in her firm, industry, or society must inspire her constituents not only with her words but her actions, habits, and traits. The quickest way to bring down a political opponent is to uncover marital infidelity; voters surmise that a politician unfaithful to his wife will be unfaithful to his political promises. Similarly, when CEOs institute layoffs and pay cuts while simultaneously raking in millions, employees, shareholders, and the general public resent the hypocrisy.

Glenn Tilton is a case in point. [...] Tilton was named the CEO of United Airlines in 2002 [...] The entire airline industry was struggling in the wake of September 11, but United's case was especially dire. To complicate matters, the employee stock-ownership plan enabled the two major labor unions at the airline to fire a CEO. This arrangement produced, in Tilton's words, "a ridiculous situation." His assessment--one shared by many outside investors--was that the actions required by the CEO to turn United around were the very ones that would trigger his dismissal.

Tilton, however, succeeded in leading United through the industry's largest-ever bankruptcy. To get the company back on its feet, he exacted deep cuts in employees' wages and canceled the airline's pension plan through the bankruptcy proceedings. Yet Tilton underestimated the importance of symbolic issues such as executive compensation and pay packages for top employees. Indeed, he was the highest-paid airline executive in the industry the very year that United's employee pensions were canceled.

He saw nothing wrong with that scenario: "My view of attracting the right people to a bankrupt company was they should be paid a virtual premium. People--including myself--who weren't a part of decisions that put this company into bankruptcy should be well paid to come sacrifice the possibility of advancement in another company." During tense negotiations with aviation workers in New York, Tilton and the United board stayed at a Ritz-Carlton hotel, and when United finally emerged from bankruptcy, Tilton and senior management were awarded large pay packages. In 2008, company pilots called for Tilton's resignation, citing improper management. They created a website for their cause, and flight attendants wore orange bracelets that said, "Glenn must go."

Tilton's defense of extravagant executive compensation, Jobs' pensive quirkiness, Pope Francis' tireless focus on the common touch of the papacy -- these became symbolic actions that their respective institutions either rally behind or reject. This is not to say they are only symbolic, or disingenuous. It simply means that the best leaders are acutely conscious of the fact that leadership is not merely a profession but a lifestyle -- one in which all decisions are public, and all actions are symbolic. This yields a critical and often subconscious calculus in the perception of those who are to be led, the sum of which defines the leader, and the influence he or she can ultimately exert toward a greater cause. It's all part of the job.


Next month, my new book, View from the Top: An Inside Look at How People in Power See and Shape the World, will be released by John Wiley & Sons. The book is the culmination of an extensive ten-year research initiative during which I interviewed 550 of the most powerful CEOs, government leaders and nonprofit executives in America. I hope the insights and anecdotes within prove helpful and informative--not only to those like me who study leadership, but also to those who aspire to leadership positions themselves, and who wish to wield their power responsibly and effectively. Over the next few weeks, I will be posting some selections from View from the Top in anticipation of the book's release on May 12.