At the end of December of 2016, I took some time to reflect on the year. I had traveled to over 50 cities speaking to leaders about leadership accountability. It was one of the most dynamic years in my career as a leadership advisor.
I remember thinking in early January of last year, “I wonder what 2017 will be like? Would we still see a dynamic year of leaders? Would leadership still be in a state of crisis, or will we see things stabilize?”
Well, as 2017 has faded into the rear view mirror, I realized that last year turned out to be just as dynamic, contentious and even volatile for leaders.
For me, it was another busy year that saw me travel all over the globe again, talking to powerful women and men about their roles and responsibilities, while preaching the gospel of accountable leadership. These experiences and stories inspired me to write the third edition of The Leadership Contract and the companion Field Guide – both of which are out now.
But as I look back now, there were two major themes to the stories I collected and experienced in 2017.
First, there were what I call the crash and burn stories.
CEOs from iconic companies, who retired abruptly, were forced to resign or fired because of poor performance or misconduct, or a combination of both. The #MeToo movement added to this trend as many powerful men in business were forced out of their leadership roles by past sexual misconduct. It was great to see the rise of both the power and leadership of women who had the courage to go after these men who abused their power in the way they treated others.
In addition, we saw some of the world’s most famous companies – including Ford, GE and Uber – see new CEOs come on board with ambitious agendas to drive change and innovation. Others, such as Sears, teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.
In politics, U.S. President Donald Trump used Twitter, executive orders and a shoot-from-the-lip attitude towards his job, and in the process helped redefine the term “leadership crisis.” Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Theresa May, attempting to stabilize her country in the wake of the Brexit vote, called a snap election that weakened her government and ratcheted up the uncertainty.
It would be easy to linger on the negative stories – there were so many to choose from. However, they will not be the stories I will remember from 2017. The most memorable stories – which I featured in my Gut Check blog – centered on the power of positive, accountable leadership.
For example, I wrote about the power of sincere apologies in the wake of last winter’s best picture debacle at the Academy Awards.
You might remember that a mix-up in the envelopes led presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway to announce that La La Land was the winner of the best picture Oscar. With the cast and crew already on the stage to celebrate, it was then announced that the real winner was Moonlight.
PwC showed some real leadership by coming out right away and apologizing profusely and sincerely for the mistake. The result of the firm’s mea culpa? Although the two accountants responsible for the mix-up are no longer allowed to work for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, PwC will continue to tabulate voting results, a job it has held for the past 84 years.
I also got to witness the incredible power of perseverance, as demonstrated by former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
Last year, several months after he left politics, Biden gave a speech in which he urged leaders to aspire to higher ideals. His main message was one of the most powerful I have ever heard: Our ability to lead is not just based on our power, but the power of our example.
Biden’s life is a testament to that philosophy. As a child, he had to overcome chronic stuttering. As a young politician, he had to endure the tragic death of his first wife and infant daughter in an automobile wreck. In 2015, Biden lost a son to cancer.
These are emotional crises that would crush most people. Instead, Biden went on to have one of the most storied careers in U.S. politics. He remains one of the most inspiring leaders in the world today and I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to share the stage with him and meet this man personally.
I was also struck by the power created by leaders that embody the virtues of a strong work ethic and humility. Leaders like Alibaba CEO Jack Ma.
In a speech last year, Ma outlined the leadership wisdom that made him a billionaire of one of the world’s most successful e-commerce companies. Ma believes that being a leader is hard work, and that if you’re not prepared to devote yourself to the job 100 percent, you are not ready to lead. “If you want your life to be simple, you shouldn’t be a leader.”
However, Ma also cautioned leaders that they should not put themselves on pedestals and lord their power over the people they lead. Leadership, Ma said, “is actually being the humble servant to the talent, to make sure they get what they need and you understand where they need to go.”
It’s easy to look at the negative stories and get bogged down in the idea that the world suffers from a deficit of accountable leadership, and that we’re all doomed. And while there most definitely is a need to cultivate more accountable leaders, there remains many examples of responsible, effective and inspiring leadership.
These are the examples that should not only guide all of us in our day-to-day leadership tasks, but inspire us to achieve more, ascribe to higher ideals, and in general try to make the world a better place.
In the final analysis, the great power of leadership is the power to make things better by focusing on the positive, rather than be consumed or distracted by the negative.
My first gut check of this New Year asks: What will inspire your leadership in 2018?