Accountability, Ownership, and Autonomy

“A leader must always tell the truth. He must always be trusted.” – Quote from the interview of a Leader


A recent leader, president of a major defense and aerospace business, was appointed in September 2003. As president He was responsible for the operational excellence, citizenship and growth of the business. The company’s business is to provide defense and homeland security capability for internationally and to the US market. The company employs over 13,000 people and has sales of over $5 Billion.

            I have known this leader for many years. In fact, he was responsible for recruiting me away from a major competitor in 2001. Through the years, as he grew in his career, I have kept contact with him and he has always been responsive, whether via email or in person or by hastily scribbled hand written note.

            He is a charismatic leader, and displays all the qualities of a charismatic. When he makes site visits, it’s an event. He makes the rounds through all the work areas, not just the “Ivory Tower” or “Rug Row”. He walks around the buildings, travelling to the dining centers, the factory floor, the cubicle farms, the conference rooms. He kisses all the women and shakes the hands of every man. He warmly hugs everyone he knows well. He calls out people by name. He comments on our beautiful Rhode Island ocean and bay views. His people focus is undeniable. His charismatic, transformational leadership style is the principal reason he has many followers. He has established loyalty throughout the organization and on every level.

When I asked for this interview, he was more than generous with his time. Within a few hours, I was booked on his calendar for a full half an hour.  And, my appointment was held during normal business hours, not during his “open hours”, between 6AM and 8AM. During these hours, no appointments are needed; anyone can get in to see him. This was a signal that he took my interview seriously.

            Going to the inner sanctum of upper management at the company headquarters was an experience in itself. First of all the glass outside the president’s office is tinted so that no one can tell whether he and his secretary are in or out. You have to stand directly outside his office, which requires you to fully enter the executive suite, not just glance in from the outside. When I arrived, one of the VPs was blocking my way into his personal suite. He needed to get in to see him. His secretary looked down at her calendar and said, “He has nothing available, he is booked solid.” I realized then that since all the leadership team members can see his calendar, this VP figured he could bump me and nudge in ahead. He had obviously given the order that I was to be seen and not budged out by anyone (maybe except for his wife, kids, or boss).

            I was led into a conference room within his suite area. Once my leader arrived and we exchanged hugs, and after I had broken the ice with a couple of small gifts, I explained that the goal of the interview was to uncover his assumptions about the key communication skills needed to be an effective leader, and that I had some questions he could answer in any way he chose.

            I could see that he was trying to make sure he answered slowly enough so I could take notes, but I tried to focus the conversation, so he could answer at his own pace, and I could jot down shorthand if necessary, I wanted him to be as natural as possible.

The following is my summary of my interview with him.

Question 1. In your view, what is the connection between leadership and communication?

He pointed out that in his opinion, not all “leaders” are communicators, but that good communicators will be leaders. He also feels that it’s not about the words you say, but what your message is. People have to see value in the message, and that there is often a conflict between communication and messaging. He commented on those who “channel”, rather than communicate (he referred to them as “priests”). I took this to mean that he knows some of his “leaders” are paying lip service to the messaging he wants communicated to employees, and that the messaging is lost, due to a lack of sincerity or conviction on the part of the “messenger”. He emphasized that it is important to listen to employees with empathy and spend time on creating results, not mere activity. This comment I took to mean that he feels there is not only lip service going on, but some of his “leaders” are just going through the motions in putting out the right messages.

Question 2. What communication strategies have been successful to you?

When I asked this question, he emphasized the importance of always telling the truth and that to be effective, a leader has to be trusted. And that over time, a leader has to demonstrate the truth and trust in what he says and what he does. He gave the example of Former President Obama’s great style and many promises made during the campaign, but later, he struggled to deliver on his word. He compared Obama to Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed (D), who doesn’t have nearly the charismatic qualities of Obama, but whose word can be trusted. In my leader’s eyes, Reed is more the leader.

Question 3. How does effective communication help achieve organizational goals and objectives?

He stated that there is an alignment issue when the organization’s values and goals are not well-communicated. The message sent by him here is that he feels that some of the leaders are not paying enough attention to the company values and goals in their messaging to the employees. And that if the leaders are not exhibiting values, how are the employees expected to do so?

He also quoted Martin Luther King to make another point. “…organize our strengths to create overwhelming power”.   Here, it seems he implies that if the company’s value and goals are not aligned, the company will not live up to its potential.

It was somewhat surprising that he openly discussed some feedback he has received on certain site visits.  He reported that employees voiced their concerns about the lack of communication by the local site leaders. My leader believed that the lack of communication and the isolation of the site leaders directly led to the proliferation of rumors. He expressed concern that “The Ivory Tower is becoming the Ivory Tower again.”  He also discussed some of his methods of testing the rumor mill, predicting that I would hear about a comment he had made the previous evening at an event. I told him that I had already heard about that comment, but what I didn’t tell him, is that I had heard it from another source. For the purpose of this meeting, I wanted to stay focused on the interview and not delve into Byzantine company politics.

I asked my leader about his use of media. He commented that the best media for him was face to face, and that the further he got away from employees, the harder it was to convey his message. He ranked the forms of communication as

1. Face-to-Face

2. Webcasts – which he considered to have more credibility than phone messaging

3. Broadcast phone messages

4. Email, as the least effective method of communicating.

He concluded his answer by stating that the degree of personal interaction a leader had with employees was key in keeping the rumor mill under control. And that left to their own devices, people will speculate. They will fill in the gaps with misinformation that the leaders don’t, can’t or won’t fill.

Question 4. How can a leader effectively communicate to gain commitment and loyalty from employees?

My leader’s answer to this question showed his unique and sophisticated approach to effective communication. He discussed how to use what he called “ineffective communication”. He mentioned the concept of “planned dis-information”, and that, as far as getting the message out; it is more effective and more powerful than planned good information. He emphasized that in many instances it is important to “look for what is NOT said”. He feels that people in the middle of the food chain are more concerned with what “the Leader said”, while high potential employees ask “What didn’t the Leader say?” I inferred from this line of discussion that he felt he gained commitment and loyalty from employees who paid attention to the subtleties of the messaging, and did not jump to conclusions; that leaders aren’t perfect, that they sometimes may misspeak. And there are times leaders need to engage in “plausible deniability”. I took this to mean that he can be ambiguous, deliberately, to test certain people who may not be performing to his expectations. Again, this seemed to be an expression of his dissatisfaction with certain leaders in the organization.

It seemed to him, how employees handle the nuances of the message is the mark of commitment and loyalty. Those who know how best to interpret his actions and words are those he will keep close and put his trust in. Those will be the ones who will rise. In fact, he mentioned again his belief that people who seem to be buried in the organization but who communicate well will grow in the organization and become leaders.

            I asked my leader two additional questions as our time was running out.

Question 5. Where do you see communication breakdowns?

His answer to this question goes back to his charismatic leadership style and his focus on people. He believes that breakdowns occur when people are devalued. He stated that “devaluation of people is the root cause of 90% of all communication failures”. He also revealed that in his opinion, knowledge is the root of all power. Without knowledge or “situational awareness”, poor communication will prevail. He also felt that there is no effective way to measure his communications department. His communications VP has only been with the company for two years, and My Leader felt that that was not enough time to measure the overall effectiveness. (I disagree with this point, but our time was almost up.)

Question 6. Why do communication breakdowns happen?

He reiterated his belief in humankind with this question. He made the statement that all humans are inherently good and want to do well.  But, many succumb to the agendas of others. A successful leader aligns all the agendas. Everybody thinks they are doing the right thing, 70-80% get on board; and that our industry, defense, is a natural to appeal to people’s desire to do good things – we protect the war fighter and our nation every day. That is our mission that is our job. Then he brought up one of his most famous sayings: “Everybody gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror and says ‘I’m going to do my best today.’ Then he/she gets into work and his/her manager gets in the way.” He seems to be saying that somehow, the “leaders” aren’t aligned with employees or with his messages, and that misalignment causes most of the breakdowns in communication.

Critique As stated earlier, My Leader is a charismatic, transformational leader. He values truth and trust and open communication, as stated in Zaleznik.  Due to his emphasis on personal relationships and face to face communication, he is able to reach and touch as many employees as possible. This characteristic of relating to all the employees he touches, somehow changes people internally. He takes the time to say hello, ask about employees’ lives, and this makes them feel better than they did before. It’s easy to see that he fits the profile of the Charismatic Decision Maker as in Williams and Miller. The vocabulary of a Charismatic: Results, Proven. Actions, Clear, Focus, all fit the profile of this leader.

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Mary T. O'Sullivan

Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, Member, International Coaching Federation, Society of Human Resource Management. Candidate, Master’s Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas. Member Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University. Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM. Mary O’Sullivan has over 30 years experience in the aerospace and defense industry. In each of her roles, she acted as a change agent, moving teams and individuals from status quo to new ways of thinking, through offering solutions focused on changing behaviors and fostering growth. In additional, Mary holds a permanent teaching certificate in the State of New York for secondary education, and taught high school English for 10 years in the Syracuse, NY area.