Guilt By Association


Is the perception of others overshadowing your leadership?

Do you have a growing sense that your employees have stopped trusting you? Is your team looking at you warily — even though you haven’t done anything to warrant their suspicion?

If so, you might blame John Thain, the former head of Merrill Lynch & Co. While Merrill was losing $12 billion last year, Thain was spending $1.2 million of the company’s money to spruce up his office. And while the company was trimming 20 percent of its workforce in an effort to remain afloat, Thain was paying out $4 billion in bonuses to executives. Then, after unloading the beleaguered company in a fire sale to Bank of America, Thain had the audacity to ask his board for a $10 million performance bonus.

You might also fault Rick Wagoner, Robert Nardelli, and Alan Mulally, chief executives of automakers General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford. Late last year, the three CEOs traveled to Washington, D.C. seeking billions of dollars in federal bailout assistance. The help was justified, they reasoned because it would keep their expense-laden companies out of bankruptcy and save the jobs of millions of industry workers. Yet, to the astonishment of Congress and the American public, the CEOs admitted to flying to Washington in the luxury of their private jets.

Or perhaps you should blame Edward Liddy, CEO of American International Group. Last September, the U.S. government gave the insurance giant an $85 billion taxpayer-funded loan to save it from certain collapse. Those taxpayers were surprised to learn that, just a few days later, AIG spent $440,000 to pamper its top insurance agents for an entire week at the extravagant St. Regis Resort in California.

The negative perception of these leaders and their actions mount up in people’s minds with continued negative press about them. This negativity could impact you as a leader.

Why would you blame these executives for your employees’ waning trust in you? Because they’ve helped promote a growing stereotype that characterizes business leaders as scoundrels. In a recent poll conducted for the Knights of Columbus, more than 90 percent of respondents said they believe that career advancement, personal financial gain, increasing profits, or acquiring competitive advantage are the principal factors corporate leaders consider when making business decisions. With continued daily reports of unethical behavior at some of the country’s largest and best-known companies, it’s little wonder that Americans have such a low opinion of business leaders.

These scandals, and the stereotypes they perpetuate, are making your job as a leader harder than ever. Thanks to the highly publicized practices of a few bad executives, many employees are associating leaders at all levels with dishonesty and un-trustworthiness. And those suspicious looks on your employees’ faces mean that they are wondering whether or not you’re any different; that is to say if you’re worthy of their trust.

Are you noticing a loss of shine on the armor of leadership in your organization? Or has your organization separated the acts of others from the actions of your leadership team? What are you doing to instill trust in your followers and fellow leaders?

L2L Contributing Author