The dark side of leadership: The toughest aspects of running a company

In 1970, as a C-130E Instructor pilot in Vietnam, I was asked to lead a treacherous mission just south of the DMZ.

I had a crew of seven for this mission. Most of them were just over 20. I was 28. We were carrying highly explosive fuel to a lonely Army outpost. The fuel blatters contained gasoline for jeeps, armored vehicles and tanks.

No one wanted to go. Five members of my crew cursed me for accepting the mission. The other two said, “No problem, sir. We’ll get the job done.”

And we did. But those five crew members made it very clear that they abhorred my decision.

That was an example of the dark side of leadership that nobody wants to talk about. Volumes have been written about what it takes to be a leader.

But you seldom hear about the dark side of leadership from the leader. That’s what I want to tell you about. It’s time that the leader’s silent voice is heard.

Here are 10 facets of the dark side of leadership.

1. Friendship and leadership

The two concepts, friendship and leadership, aren’t polar opposites, but close to it. This is the first and, perhaps, one of the most important facets. A leader who is out to make friends and have “yes people” will simply not succeed. Leadership is not a popularity contest.

2. The family

I know many TEC members who emphatically state that family is first and business is second. But for business leaders in general, that isn’t always true.

How can you put in 50 or 60 hours a week or more, and a grueling travel schedule, and have a lot of time left over for family or a social life?

3. Physical and nutritional fitness

This is the third facet, and for many CEOs, there is simply not enough time in the day to work out and concentrate on their physical health. Likewise, eating three healthy meals a day isn’t always possible.

Obesity among some of America’s best known CEOs is fact, not fiction.

4. Emotional pressure

The emotional pressure of the job is relentless, especially when it comes to decisions like laying off employees, firing key employees or shutting down non-performing operations.

A well-known CEO suffered through losing a longtime employee to a warehouse fire. He never emotionally recovered from the tragedy and held himself accountable.

5. Feedback

A fifth facet is the simple notion of feedback and reinforcement for a job well done. For the last 50 years, consultants have said, “Employees need feedback and constant reinforcement about their performance.”

CEO leaders have no one to give them feedback and reinforce performance, except their board of directors, if they have one.

In public companies, the scrutiny is almost microscopic. But not so in a privately-held business. Many don’t have a board to begin with. In TEC, the CEO’s roundtable functions like a board, and gives feedback and reinforcement to fellow TEC members.

But there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of small family-owned businesses in Wisconsin and Michigan that don’t have that kind of opportunity.

6. The big picture vs. details only

Others might call this sixth facet the anal versus non-anal perspectives of the leader.

Leaders are asked by default to have the big picture and the small picture in their binoculars. The truth is that the details-only leader suffers incredible frustration because of the failure of the business to execute the details.

What can this lead to? Ulcers, sleepless nights, hypertension, and so on. As for the big picture leader, the complaint is that the CEO isn’t really involved in the business. In other words, damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

7. Performance in a crisis

This can run the gamut from failing to properly fulfill a major customer’s order quickly, to dealing with a disgruntled employee who is causing havoc in the workplace.

The issue here is that the leader must act decisively and, during a crisis, swiftly. If the company is managed largely by teams, the leader is faced with the decision of whether to intervene or let the team process work through the issue.

8. Consistent behavior

Employees are quick to notice inconsistent leadership, presumed favoritism, and things that are permitted even though they’re contrary to company policy and practices. The CEO, more than any other employee, has to pay attention to his or her own behavior, or cracks in the armor will occur.

9. Charisma

A leader who has charisma gets an automatic boost in acceptance compared to a leader who doesn’t have it. Unfortunately, charisma isn’t something you can learn from a book or a course on leadership.

Ronald Reagan was said to have great charisma, and Bill Clinton too, prior to the Monica Lewinsky affair. Jimmy Carter was viewed as having little charisma.

10. Credibility

This is perhaps the most important of all – a complicated facet of leadership that dates back to the time of Aristotle. Credibility involves several key components and all of them, research has shown, are about equal in importance: honesty, candor, reliability and trustworthiness.

Credibility isn’t manufactured by a leader. It’s what a leader’s followers perceive. A leader without credibility can’t lead effectively.

Credibility has plagued politicians since the beginning of time. In the business world, it has brought down leaders of some of America’s greatest companies. Credibility can’t be compromised. It’s a tough task for a great leader to uphold in the worst of times and in the best of times.

The dark side of leadership comes down to this: Leaders are made, not born. They bear an incredible responsibility and are held accountable for everything that goes righ and everything that goes wrong. They endure enormous stress for the privilege of leadership.

It’s an honor that only a few can hold and sustain.

Harry S. Dennis III is the chairman and CEO of TEC Wisconsin/Michigan. TEC is a professional development group for CEOs, presidents and business owners. He can be reached at (262) 821-3340.

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