“Now, more than ever before, we need strong leaders.”
As I look back over the past year, this was the core theme from almost every discussion I’ve had with senior leaders from around the world. Whether I was in North America, South America or Europe, it kept coming up.
When you stop and think about what has happened in the world over the last year, you can see why this was a common theme. Leaders continue to face an era of profound change and disruption. Executives realize that strong and accountable leadership across their companies will be critical to their success—today and tomorrow.
There is no sugar coating this: at a time when we need our leaders to be strong, we see example after example of weakness.
What have been the key leadership stories of 2018?
Let’s start close to my home in Toronto, Ontario, where this summer voters elected a man named Doug Ford to serve as the premier of my province. He’s a stridently populist leader whose family—including the now-deceased Rob Ford, a notorious former mayor of Toronto—has had more than a few brushes with criminality and drugs. The utter frustration voters had with the former premier and her party created a sharp appetite for change. In the end, it didn’t matter what kind of change. They wanted a different leader.
A similar story played out in Brazil.
I travelled to Sao Paulo on business the week before their second election. I watched with great interest as a new president, Jair Bolsonaro, was elected on a law-and-order platform that included a pledge to end chronic governmental corruption. And then I watched as members of his inner circle were subsequently accused of accepting illegal campaign donations in a bid to influence the incoming government.
In the United States, many of us continue to look on with a mix of curiosity and, for some, mild horror as President Donald Trump’s administration is drawn ever closer to possible involvement in illegal efforts to manipulate the 2016 presidential election.
In the United Kingdom, the slow and painful march towards Brexit—the pull out from the European Union—has been hard to ignore. British Prime Minister Theresa May has been working hard to negotiate a deal acceptable to both the EU and her own government. In the coming days, she will face the ultimate political test. If the British Parliament and her own government reject the deal she has forged with Brussels, it will not only end her political career, it will throw her country into chaos.
From a corporate perspective, Tesla CEO Elon Musk and his unusual, stream-of-consciousness Tweets landed him and his innovative company in hot water with security regulators. When it was all said and done, he was forced by the SEC to relinquish his role as chairman.
There are also the continuing travails at Facebook, which has been caught trying to undermine its critics. Facebook hired a PR firm to do opposition research and create news articles to help deflect attention away from them. But when this information was brought to light, the COO first claimed she were unaware—and then changed her story—demonstrating a lack of responsibility and accountability at the top of the leadership ranks at Facebook.
And of course, no discussion about the year in leadership would be complete without touching on the #MeToo movement.
Dozens of powerful, high profile men in leadership positions have been knocked from their pedestals by the women who suffered years of abuse, harassment and even assault at their hands. Few stories do a better job of demonstrating both the endemic weakness of leadership and the emerging power of women.
Finally, late in the year, there was the story of Nissan's Carlos Ghosn, who was arrested over allegations of financial misconduct. Ghosn was named CEO of Nissan back in 2001 and, for the most part, did a remarkable job of turning Nissan into one of the world’s most profitable automakers. But his legacy will most likely be ruined as a result of his personal transgressions.
Are we doomed to commit the same leadership mistakes year after year with the same disastrous results?Now, as someone who has dedicated his career to helping leaders and their companies be successful, it’s hard to sit back and watch this mess. There are days when I have to ask myself, is all of our hard work futile?
Are we doomed to commit the same leadership mistakes year after year with the same disastrous result?
Should we assume that leaders will not live up to our expectations and simply stop caring about delivering on important challenges like workforce transformation?
I think the obvious answer to that question is, unequivocally, “no.”
It is easy to become discouraged by these examples of poor leadership. But we should also be inspired by the positive stories, and there were several worth noting in 2018.
Let’s look at Microsoft, who in late November became the world’s most valuable company, surpassing Apple for a brief moment. While this is a phenomenal achievement, what is even more inspiring is how their CEO, Satya Nadella, has led a true cultural transformation. Nadella took a company renowned for being an internally competitive pressure cooker to one where morale and confidence has been restored to new heights. Not surprisingly, better performance has followed.
In the world of sports, there was a nice little story from Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie who, following the team’s thunderous Super Bowl victory in January, insisted on giving a championship ring to a former Eagles player whose career ended for medical reasons shortly after he was traded from the team. The generosity and loyalty he showed to a long-serving player who was no longer with his organization is one of those leadership stories that shows me there is hope.
Then there was the important lesson we learned from Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
One morning, as Rutte was passing through the security checkpoint in the Dutch parliament buildings, he dropped his coffee all over the floor. The whole mess was captured on video and shared with the world. Rutte’s reaction was priceless. Instead of shrinking in embarrassment, he picked up a mop and started cleaning up the mess. That small moment showed his humility and modesty.
Another leadership story that holds the most hope and promise to me is the results of the mid-term elections in the United States.
It was a historic moment, not because the Democrats won the House, but because a record number of women won seats (including two Native American women and the first Muslim woman) and voters elected the first openly gay governor. These are just a few of the stories that played out. It will be interesting to see how this diversity in leadership will unfold over the coming months and years.
Then, there are the many untold stories of great people leading amazing companies with inspiring cultures. My colleagues and I have the privilege of working with them every single day. Their stories do not necessarily make the headlines, but they press on, creating enduring value for their customers and places where their employees can perform meaningful work.
What was last year’s most important leadership story for you?