Developing leadership traits

In May 2010, as a torrent of crude oil spewed from the ocean floor into Gulf of Mexico waters, ABC News anchor Jake Tapper drilled into Bob...

In May 2010, as a torrent of crude oil spewed from the ocean floor into Gulf of Mexico waters, ABC News anchor Jake Tapper drilled into Bob Dudley, then BP’s managing director who was know for his exceptional leadership qualities, for an explanation. “So ‘topkill’ failed,” Tapper opened, referring to BP’s attempt to plug the well by pumping heavyweight drilling mud into it. “Should the American people prepare themselves for an uncomfortable fact that this leadership hole will not be plugged until August, at the earliest?”

Dudley features composed, collar unbuttoned affirmed that, while August was a possibility, BP was working around the clock and would contain the spill as soon as was humanly possible.

Tapper turned up the heat. “As you know there are serious questions as to whether or not there have been corners cut safety corners that resulted in this accident,” he said. Why, for instance, did BP use “the risky option” of a metal casing known to buckle under high pressure?

The leadership in the form of Dudley calmly countered that no corners had been cut, no risky options pursued. “But why were operations not shut down immediately until well control could be restored?” Tapper persisted, his tone ever more accusatory. “That is another issue the investigation is going to look at very, very carefully,” Dudley responded evenly, never breaking eye contact with the camera lens. He then went on to say that getting to the bottom of this tragedy was BP’s top priority. The company owed that to the people of the Gulf.

Two months later, Dudley again sat in the hot seat this time, on PBS NewsHour, where he answered questions put to him by hard-hitting host Ray Suarez about the catastrophic consequences of the spill. Dudley, his voice steady but charged with empathy, stepped in with his first response. “I’ve seen the devastation,” he began. “I went down to Grand Isle two weeks ago and I saw the oil on the beaches. . . . I traveled out to Grand Pass and saw the oil in the marshes and talked to the local people.” He then leaned forward and looked Suarez in the eye. “You know,” he said, “we’re going to make good on the claims from individuals and businesses down there.” And he methodically laid out the steps BP was taking to do just that. Suarez then made a reference to the Exxon Valdez incident a very badly handled oil spill.

Dudley didn’t shy away from the implied comparison; instead he explained that BP wouldn’t “hide” behind a declaration of bankruptcy or some legal processes, as Exxon had done. Suarez continued to press, but during the entire grilling there wasn’t a single question Dudley avoided or refused to answer and he came over as a compassionate, considered, and competent leader, and that indeed is his image.

Bob Dudley, these days CEO of BP, has the leadership traits who doesn't get hot under the collar, but it’s not because he’s stayed out of the kitchen. On the contrary, as he detailed in an interview with me, his career in Big Oil, which began at Amoco at the height of the OPEC crisis, has put him at the epicenter of the industry’s worst nightmares. As CEO of TNK-BP, he battled a group of Russian oligarchs intent on squeezing him out. He dealt with various kinds of harassment, including, some say, threats to his life, and, when his visa was denied, proceeded to run the company from an undisclosed remote location. Fresh from that challenging set of experiences, he was put in charge of BP’s operations in Asia and the Americas, reporting to CEO Tony Hayward. Then the Deepwater Horizon exploded, Hayward imploded (more on that later), and BP stock tumbled to half its value. In July, the firm tapped Dudley, who was heading up the Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, to take over from Hayward. Such was Dudley’s credibility that before the well was even capped, BP’s share price took an upturn.

When I attempted during our interview to credit him with BP’s recovery, Dudley demurred with characteristic humility. “There were a lot of people who performed unbelievably well,” he said. But nothing, he agreed, is more important in troubled times than a leader who projects calm and confidence. “I want people around me who can be clear-thinking and calm in a crisis,” he emphasized. “I don’t believe I’ve ever been able to judge or trust a person unless I can see what they’re like under fire.”

Early in her career as an academic, Katherine Phillips emerged as the voice at the table courageous enough to point out the elephant in the room. In only her second year on the faculty at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, Phillips told her colleagues at a succession-planning meeting that it was “a waste of energy” to discuss replacing Max Bazerman, a world-renowned faculty member who’d recently left, because none of them was willing to allocate the necessary resources to lure in an equally towering intellect.

“You guys have already taken his office, his courses, and his grant monies and divvied them up among yourselves,” she pointed out, referring to the fact that Bazerman’s empire had already been picked over. “What’s left? What are you willing to give back? X, y, or z? No one top-notch will consider coming to Kellogg without an amazing package that needs to include x, y, and z.” She let that sink in, then added, “Let’s not waste time talking about it anymore, because what I’m seeing is, Max has already been replaced” she raised an index finger and jabbed it—“by you . . . and you . . . and you.”

“Well, they were stunned,” Phillips told me, marveling at her own youthful bravado. “But after the meeting two leadership development programs faculty members thanked me for saying what I did. And it sparked a much more honest discussion in the department.” This incident established Phillips as someone others could count on to speak the truth when no one else dared. She is today the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School the first African-American woman to hold a chair at this prestigious school. “You could say that ‘speaking truth to power’ has become part of my personal brand,” she observes. “I’ve never been afraid to say what others won’t and people have come to count on me for that.”

In 2012, a newly appointed CEO of a medical device manufacturer faced a difficult watershed moment. Recently enacted U.S. healthcare rules meant the firm would be hit with a 2.3 percent excise tax—an unforecasted loss equivalent to $75–$100 million in reduced profits. This new leader knew he needed to move quickly and cut expenses across the board including (most painfully) head count. By strategically reallocating resources from poorly performing units to more promising divisions, he could probably save hundreds of jobs. Still, there would be layoffs. More than two hundred, in fact.

The CEO delivered the bad news himself. “I pulled the group together, stood in front of them, and walked them through why the company needed to make these cuts and answered their questions,” he told me in an interview. “Obviously I couldn’t get rid of their pain—and I didn’t try to. But I did want them to know that it wasn’t a personal thing (these were hardworking, loyal employees) but a structural thing (the company needed to downsize in order to survive and thrive going forward). I also wanted them to know that there would be a ‘package’ and we would do our utmost to help them find a way forward.” He paused. “Still, it was a pretty tough two hours. They were surprised and distressed, and felt blindsided even betrayed. They let me know it in no uncertain terms. But one thing was clear to me. I needed to be there. I wasn’t about to hide in my office and expect a junior colleague to deal with the tough stuff.”

Lots of leaders do precisely that, I pointed out. Had he seen Up in the Air, where George Clooney plays the professional ax man, flying around the country doing the dirty work for leaders lacking the courage to fire employees themselves? He had.

“You have to be there in bad times as well as good, to show you lead from the heart as well as from the head,” this CEO observed. “This emotional intelligence thing is important. If you don’t reach out personally, if you don’t show empathy, if you don’t speak from your heart, you lose the trust and respect of not only your employees but also your investors. And then you’re truly powerless.”

Leadership Traits: The Right Stuff

 We all know a real leader when we see one. Like Bob Dudley, he or she projects an aura of calm and competence that instills faith even in—especially in—the white-hot center of a crisis. Like Kathy Phillips, he or she reveals integrity and demonstrates courage by uttering truths when they are inconvenient or most unwelcome. And like our medical-device firm CEO, he or she demonstrates courage and emotional intelligence that secures followership even in the wake of news that would seemingly destroy it.

These qualities connote gravitas, that weightiness or heft that marks you as worth following into the fire. Gravitas is the very essence of EP. Without it, you simply won’t be perceived as a leader, no matter what your title or level of authority, no matter how well you dress or speak. Gravitas, according to 62 percent of the leaders we surveyed, is what signals to the world you’re made of the right stuff and can be entrusted with serious responsibility.

But what is it, really? What makes up gravitas—this elusive but all-important piece of executive presence? How do you come by it, and how might you telegraph it?

leadership traits

CTI research reveals gravitas to consist of six key behaviors and traits.

What strikes me about this list is how entirely contemporary it is. It makes perfect sense, in our troubled times, that senior leaders in our survey and virtually all of the CEOs I interviewed—prize “grace under fire” (79 percent concur it’s critical for women’s EP, and 76 percent concur it’s critical for men’s EP). Just consider what we’ve been through in the past ten or fifteen years in terms of unprecedented events.

The century opened with a bang: not Y2K, but the bursting of the dot-com bubble, wiping out billions. In 2001, the unthinkable occurred with the September 11 terrorist attacks, driving us to war in both Afghanistan and, by 2003, Iraq.5 Before the year 2001 was out, the economy took another major blow when it was revealed that accounting fraud and corporate complicity had bankrupted Enron, the $100 billion energy and commodities firm. Six months later, telecommunications titan WorldCom revealed a similar scandal on an even more spectacular scale, stiffing creditors to the tune of $5.7 billion. This was only a taste of the defrauding to come: The subprime mortgage crisis in 2008 robbed Americans of their jobs and savings, triggering a recession in the United States and touching off a global financial meltdown from which much of Europe has yet to recover. Every day, it seems, we’re rocked by news of ever more scandalous behaviors by those entrusted with our financial security, whether it’s the $891 million in customer accounts that MF Global misappropriated to cover trading losses in 2011 or the 2012 revelations that British banks had colluded to fix LIBOR.

Is it any wonder, given this spate of scandals, that we’re drawn to leaders who keep their promises, keep their cool, and show compassion as well as courage in making the truly hard choices?

Gravitas alone won’t secure you the corner office, of course: You’ve got to have the skill sets, the experience, and the innate talent to qualify for the job. As Linda Huber, chief financial officer at Moody’s, observes, “Substance must be the bedrock in order for someone to be taken seriously.” But if you have that depth of experience and those vital skills, gravitas is all that’s between you and that top job. It can’t be faked, but it can be cultivated.

Leadership Traits: Grace Under Fire

How do you come by composure in a crisis?

You’ve got to reach inside yourself to that place where you believe, you absolutely know, you’re eminently qualified to do the job at hand. “Self-confidence is your iron core,” says Anne Erni, head of human resources at Bloomberg LP. “To lean into the wind when your heart is pounding, you have to believe in yourself, deep down. It’s not something you can fake.”

Steeliness is forged, history shows us, in the crucible of crisis and it may take a crisis for you to discover your core of confidence. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor since 2005, may not solve the euro crisis, but no one contests her competency or credibility as a leader, in large part because she never loses her composure. Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund and prior to taking over that institution, France’s finance minister, likewise enjoys universal respect for her poise and levelheadedness in steering her country through the straits of the 2008 liquidity crunch. Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s former prime minister, will forever be known as the Iron Lady for having weathered, with nary a hair out of place, protracted crises at home (double-digit unemployment, a national coal miners’ strike), a lingering cold war with the Soviets, and a Falkland Islands showdown with Argentina. Most of us are like teabags, to borrow from Eleanor Roosevelt’s shrewd words: We don’t know how strong we are until we’re in hot water.

That you may have boiled the water in which you steep doesn’t necessarily undermine your opportunity to acquire gravitas. Look at recent headline makers who’ve proven their mettle not by averting mistakes, but by owning up to them. For example, Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, failed to forestall some $5.8 billion in trading losses in 2011 which is not much of a testament to his leadership traits prowess! Dragged before Congress to explain why, he might well have joined the infamous ranks of dissemblers like WorldCom chief Bernard Ebbers. But instead, Dimon accepted responsibility and equably answered questions, maintaining his composure and exuding confidence without coming off as arrogant. Far from gutting his gravitas, the public flogging actually seemed to bolster it. Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, observed in Fortune that Dimon would be remembered as a man who “dusted himself off, got back on his horse and rode on—stronger and a whole lot wiser.” Investors in JPMorgan actually cheered his performance, according to History may yet judge Dimon a scalawag, but even his detractors came away impressed by his grace under fire.

So while avoiding catastrophe may demonstrate competence, it is handling catastrophe that confers gravitas. Recall Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who landed in the Hudson River after striking a flock of Canada geese. Avoiding the geese was not an option; what was an option for this leader was not succumbing to the “worst sickening, pit-of-your-stomach falling-through-the-floor” feeling he suffered moments before the crash.7 As a result of Sully’s extraordinary poise and control, every passenger and crew member survived that forced landing unharmed.

You will make mistakes. You will suffer the mistakes of others. Accidents completely out of your control will befall you. Each of these represents, however, a monumental opportunity to acquire and exude gravitas: to reach within yourself, at the height of the storm, for that eye of calm, and to speak and act from that place of clarity. Because when you demonstrate that your confidence cannot be shaken, you inspire confidence in others. At worst, you’ll win their forgiveness and forbearance. Very possibly, you’ll win their trust and loyalty.

Tim Melville-Ross tells of just such a watershed moment in his career, when a mistake he made might have cost him his job, his career, and his reputation but instead provided him occasion to man up and show the public what he was really made of. Back when he was CEO of Nationwide, the United Kingdom’s biggest building society (equivalent to a savings and loan in the United States), Melville-Ross acceded to pressure from one of his top directors to adopt a questionable business practice, one that would help the firm hold its margins in a shrinking economy. “To my undying shame, we tried to screw the customer,” he admits. “A good building society simply doesn’t do that. I made the wrong decision.” But then he made the right one: He sacked that director and made a very public apology. He wrote a letter to the London Times, one that he closed by inviting readers to write to him personally. Many did write, Melville-Ross told me, and took him to task for his blunder. The larger result of his falling on his sword, however, was restored faith in Nationwide—and, interestingly, in him personally. “It established me as a leader of integrity,” he says, “a reputation which has carried me through many a storm since.” Melville-Ross is today chair of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and president of the Institute of Business Ethics.

You have this same choice. In a crisis, you can lean into the wind, acknowledge your shortcomings, and rise above them; or you can take cover. You can acquire gravitas, the cornerstone of a real leader. Or you can demonstrate that, no matter what your actual title, you really don’t deserve to be in charge.

Just look at Tony Hayward. When the BP oil spill first made the news, Hayward seemed to have the public’s trust because he’d shown himself to be “frightfully” candid about BP’s previous stumbles and “dreadful” performance. But the minute he attempted to distance himself and the company from blame—the infamous “What the hell did we do to deserve this?” comment to BP executives, and then, two weeks later, observing to the Guardian that “the amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into [the Gulf] is tiny in relation to the total water volume”—the public turned on him.8 His comments were seen as conveying arrogance rather than confidence. Any chance he may have had to restore public opinion—by apologizing, for instance—he squandered with ever more stunning displays of insensitivity, the most memorable being his infamous remark “I’d like my life back.” These petulant words provoked a savage reaction. News commentators couldn’t believe that he was complaining about his schedule—missing a few summer weekends seemed a paltry sacrifice in the context of this catastrophic spill that had wreaked havoc in the Gulf. So many residents had lost their livelihoods—and eleven oil rig workers lost their lives. So instead of calming the waters, Tony set fire to them. It was a blunder that cost him his job.

Leadership traits: Showing Teeth

 Lynn Utter, who is today chief operating officer of Knoll Inc., a global leader in furniture and textile manufacturing, recalls the moment in her career when she first showed teeth. She’d just been named head of the container unit at Coors Brewing Company, replacing a thirty-year company veteran to become the company’s first female senior leader. Just a few months into the role, Utter sat in a meeting with half a dozen male board members who were debating whether to invest millions of dollars to fund a start-up as part of a joint venture. Having done her homework, she was utterly clear on how and why Coors should do the deal. Still, she listened to others, hoping for insights outside her own, until finally, fed up with the equivocation, she stood and addressed the room. “If we do not invest,” she said with calm, sturdy authority, “we are not living up to the fundamental philosophy of our partnership. If we do nothing, in fact, the entity is doomed. Either we step up, or we call it off.”

Under her leadership traits, the investment went forward. “I do not think they expected me to have that kind of backbone,” Utter says. “But I’d done my homework and knew the numbers cold. I knew what we needed to do and felt it was up to me to show strength and point the way forward.”

Making difficult decisions is what we look to leaders to do. It is not so much about rendering the right decision, but about rendering a decision at a time when no one else dares, that confers gravitas, because it telegraphs that you have the courage, as well as the confidence, to impose a direction and take responsibility for it. Yahoo's leader, CEO Marissa Mayer showed leadership traits when she had the chops when she announced that all employees, starting in June 2013, would need to be working out of Yahoo’s offices. For the survival of the company, whose share price was tanking, she was revoking telecommuting privileges. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” read the memo that employees received from HR head Jackie Reses. “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.” The move sparked a firestorm: Some leaders (Jack Welch among them) applauded the move as an appropriate piece of discipline for the ailing firm; others (Richard Branson was one) condemned it as “a backwards step.” But Mayer had the courage to recognize that business as usual was not going to bootstrap Yahoo out of its death spiral. She made a bold, if unpopular, decision. She showed teeth. That display of confidence and courage boosted her gravitas and, consequently, her shareholders’ faith in her ability to turn the tide.

CTI research finds that 70 percent of leaders consider decisiveness to be a component of EP for both men and women, second only to confidence in a crisis, making it a core aspect of gravitas. Being able to make decisions isn’t so much the issue as needing to appear decisive in public the difference, again, between doing the job of a leader and looking like one as you’re doing it, between demonstrating competence and exuding presence. George W. Bush clearly recognized this imperative when he zeroed in on being “the Decider” and built this as a central part of his brand. Mitt Romney similarly trumpeted his assertiveness on the presidential campaign trail; in his view leadership traits and “showing teeth” were synonymous. Better to get a reputation, as president, for being a hard-ass than a wuss “soft” on terrorists, or illegal immigrants, or dictators.

Given that showing teeth draws on so many stereotypically male attributes aggression, assertiveness, toughness, dominance—it’s ostensibly easier for males to appear decisive. Yet if the emergence of testosterone clinics is any indication, men aren’t necessarily naturals at showing teeth. The Financial Times reported that, in search of “the positive side of aggression,” men are dosing up on testosterone, convinced the hormone will confer the “alpha male personality” of a bona fide Wall Street mover and shaker. One clinic, located steps away from the New York Stock Exchange, offers twice-weekly treatments as part of a $1,000-and-up monthly regimen. The injections aren’t without risk: Side effects include sleep apnea, increased risk of heart disease, growth of latent tumors, and testicular shrinkage. But the results, to hear the clinic’s Wall Street clientele describe them, more than justify the risks. Testosterone makes them feel bolder, louder, and more assertive, they say; as a result, they’re more comfortable showing teeth and taking risks. “It’s important to project an aura of invincibility,” one trader confided to me. The way he sees it, he’s buying job security—no small thing in an industry that’s shed one hundred thousand jobs since 2008.

Women, however, definitely have a harder row to hoe—not in being decisive, it bears repeating, but in appearing to be. Women like Marissa Mayer who render decisions that demand action risk being perceived as “unfeminine” aka unlikable in the eyes of their peers and subordinates, a phenomenon we’ll explore at much greater length in the blog. It’s the classic double bind: If you’re tough, you’re a bitch and no one wants to work for you, but if you’re not tough, you’re not perceived as leadership traits material and you won’t be given anyone to work for you. It’s a high-wire act that every capable woman has had to perform, and the higher she goes, the more perilous the act. A senior colleague and mentor of a female tax attorney whose meteoric rise to CFO at Lehman Brothers garnered her intense scrutiny recounted to me some of the advice he felt obliged to give the attorney as she navigated her way to the C-suite. “She had no problem finding her voice at the table with fourteen other men,” he told me. “But that was the problem: She was very demanding, very assertive. And that was no way to impress these guys, many of whom had spent fifteen, twenty years at the firm.” He counseled her to “damp it down,” to be more sensitive to the other voices. “You walked in and spoke like you are the next chairman of the firm,” he remembers telling her. “You may be, and it may be a good goal for you . . . but you can’t act like that today. You have to be a little more sensitive to the senior men sitting around the table with you, or they’ll eat you alive.”

Male or female, the way to walk the line between decisive and difficult may be, as Lynn Utter demonstrates, to dish it out very discriminately—to hide your teeth more often than you bare them. Real leaders don’t issue edicts just to look and sound like they’re in charge. Real leaders listen, gather critical information, weigh the options carefully, look for a timely opening (typically when everyone else is writhing in indecision), and then demand action.

“Oftentimes it is just as important to know when being decisive is not the thing to do—to let events play out in a certain way and bide your time,” cautions Bob Dudley. “I see a lot of people trying to be too decisive too quickly.” When the moment demands a decision that you’re prepared to render, step forth and render it. Just choose those moments with care.

Leadership Traits: Speaking truth to power

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey shocked his fellow Republicans by publicly heaping praise on Barack Obama just days before the 2012 presidential election. Speaking live on Fox News, with images of the ravaged state playing over the airwaves, Christie told viewers that he’d had three conversations in the last twenty-four hours with the president, asking that his state be declared a federal disaster to expedite funds, and that that morning Obama had signed the paperwork. “I have to give the president great credit,” Christie concluded. “He’s been very attentive and anything I’ve asked for, he’s gotten to me. He’s done, as far as I’m concerned, a great job for New Jersey.” When asked if he’d be touring the state later by helicopter with Governor Romney, Christie, a vocal supporter of the Republican candidate just days before, told the correspondents he didn’t know and wasn’t interested. “If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics,” he said heatedly, “then you don’t know me.”

Those who know Christie weren’t, in fact, shocked by his behavior. Mike DuHaime, an advisor to the governor, observed he was acting true to form. “He calls ’em as he sees ’em,” he told the New York Times .18 That’s what Christie does: When homeowners refused to evacuate from New Jersey’s barrier islands, Christie called them “both selfish and stupid.” 19 Prior to Sandy, he called President Obama “the most ill-prepared person to assume the presidency in my lifetime.” Christie doesn’t hesitate, that is, to speak his truth—however impolitic it may be, however mighty the audience he offends with it. And that candor marks him,
paradoxically, as a presidential contender.

Speaking truth to power, as more than 60 percent of our respondents affirm, is a potent affirmation of leaderlike courage. The higher you go in an organization, the more impressive you are when you demonstrate you have the spine to share your convictions. “I want people who will walk into my office and say, ‘Here’s where I differ, I want to talk to you about it,’ ” affirms Tiger Tyagarajan, CEO of Genpact. “I love that! This is the kind of courage I’m looking for, in addition to the given of stellar performance.”

Make sure, however, that when you challenge authority, you’re coming from a core of unshakable values. Anything less and your actions will be perceived as insubordination and/or arrogance—the opposites of gravitas.

And then prepare to be truly tested.

Financial powerhouse Sallie Krawcheck established early on in her career a penchant for telling it like it is. As a research analyst on Wall Street, she downgraded Travelers for its acquisition of brokerage firm Salomon Brothers, a move that earned her the fury of Citicorp’s Sandy Weill (Citicorp would acquire Travelers to form Citigroup). Impressed with her intellectual integrity as well as her analysis skills, however, Weill eventually hired her to head up Citigroup’s Smith Barney unit, promoting her within two years to be CFO of Citigroup. Krawcheck continued to tell it like it was, suggesting, at the height of the 2008 financial crisis, that the company partially refund its clients for investments positioned by Citi as low risk that had taken a nosedive during the downturn. CEO Vikram Pandit wasn’t appreciative of this piece of advice and fired her.

The story doesn’t end there. In 2011, the integrity and courage Krawcheck exhibited at Citi won her the top job at Merrill Lynch, which had recently been taken over by Bank of America. Her brief: to make this much-revered wealth management house profitable again. Despite huge success on this front (revenues rose by 54 percent in her second quarter on the job), she found herself in the crosshairs of new CEO Brian Moynihan, whose leadership traits had resulted in losses of $8.8 billion across Bank of America during that same quarter.21 By September of that year, Krawcheck was out.

“I’ve found that speaking truth has not always stood me in good stead in terms of my career progression,” Krawcheck told me when we discussed her extraordinary journey. “But it always, always, always stood me in good stead in terms of managing businesses.” She added, with heartfelt pride, “Had I to do it over again, I wouldn’t do it any differently. Not one thing.”

Leadership Traits: Demonstrating Emotional Intelligence

Mitt Romney’s compulsion to show teeth to remind us at every turn that his tough leadership style had made him a phenomenally successful CEO might have garnered him more votes in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election had he not, at the same time, demonstrated at every turn his utter insensitivity toward half the electorate. Like Tony Hayward, Romney was tone-deaf when it came to tuning his remarks for constituencies outside his war room. Comments such as noting that his wife had “a couple of Cadillacs” didn’t persuade voters of his love for American cars, but rather that he lived in a rich man’s bubble and was insulated from working people’s reality.

In a similar vein, his comment that he had consulted “binders full of women” to fill his cabinet as governor served to underscore how out of touch he was with the sensibilities of working women. The final blow, delivered at a private fund-raiser and captured on video that quickly went viral on the Web, was his sweeping condemnation of 47 percent of the electorate as freeloaders who pay no income tax! (Freeloaders, it turned out, included not-yet-employed returning veterans and the disabled.)

Romney’s 47 percent comment “did real damage” to his campaign, as he himself conceded, underscoring just how important emotional intelligence—or EQ, as psychologist Daniel Goleman calls it—has become what we look for in leaders. A hefty majority of our respondents see EQ as very important, with 61 percent noting its importance for women’s executive presence, and 58 percent noting its importance for men’s. And here’s why: While decisiveness and toughness in a leader signal conviction, courage, and resolve, when untempered by empathy or compassion these same characteristics come off as egotism, arrogance, and insensitivity.

Look at Marissa Mayer’s decision to force Yahoo’s staff to return to their desks on campus. Issuing this edict showed teeth, as we’ve discussed, but regrettably, it also showed a leader out of touch with the realities other working parents contend with. Mayer drew fire not for being tough but for being hypocritical, having solved her own child-care issues by building a separate cubicle next to her office for her infant son and nanny. “I wonder what would happen if my wife brought our kids and nanny to work and set ’em up in the cube next door?” joked the husband of one Yahoo mom.  His voice was tinged with bitterness.

Making and enforcing unpopular decisions is indeed part of showing you’ve got the chops to be put in charge. It’s just that in today’s ever-flatter organizations, acting insensitively actually compromises your ability to create buy-in among employees and realize optimal outcomes for the firm. This was the conclusion two researchers from Harvard and Stanford reached after spending weeks on two offshore oil rigs studying the culture change that management had initiated to improve safety and performance.

The research team expected that, in this most dangerous and macho of work environments, aggression, bravado, and toughness not only would be on display but would be embraced and rewarded. But as a result of management’s stated goals bringing down work-site injuries and bringing up capacity—they witnessed a remarkable shift in attitudes and behaviors among the crews on oil rigs. Workers confirmed that, previously, the culture discouraged asking for help, admitting mistakes, or building community. The crew, in prior years, had been “like a pack of lions,” with the guy in charge being the one who could “basically out-perform and out-shout and out-intimidate all the others.” Once the emphasis shifted to safety, however, the company stopped rewarding “the biggest baddest roughnecks” in favor of men who could admit to mistakes, seek help when they needed it, and look out for each other. Over a period of fifteen years, this shift in values and norms helped the oil company achieve its goals: The accident rate fell by 84 percent and production hit an all-time high.

Even on an oil rig, that is, demonstrating emotional intelligence (EQ) is a key leader trait because it builds trust—essential in conditions where bravado could get you killed and a lack of concern for the team might cause others to wonder if you were cutting corners and compromising their safety. In less life-threatening conditions, however, EQ is just as important for building trust because demonstrating it shows you have not only self-awareness but also situational awareness. It’s absolutely vital in white-collar worlds such as finance, law, and medicine to show you’re capable of reading a situation, and the people in it, correctly. Standout leaders who can be trusted to pick up on all relevant cues win the trust of followers to steer them through an uncertain future.

Our interviewees spoke of the importance of EQ in particular in “reading a room”—the room being a metaphor for your immediate audience, in person or virtual. What’s the vibe, or unarticulated emotion you need to address or temper? What do people need from you in order to move forward? Leaders who pick up on these cues know when to be decisive and when to hold back; when to show teeth, and when to retract their claws. “It may be more important to comfort a room than command it,” points out Kent A. Gardiner, chairman of international law firm Crowell & Moring LLP, “because at times it can further consensus-building and problem-solving.”

Gardiner, whose career has encompassed RICO prosecutions and major civil and criminal antitrust litigation, describes how he cooled one particularly heated mediation session. “Everybody was unhappy, everybody was antagonistic, so getting up and pounding away was only going to increase the gulf,” he says. “I let a little venting occur, and then I got up and said, ‘Let’s think about it this way,’ very much respecting the other side’s position, but then trying to move us all beyond a litigation resolution toward a business resolution. And people listened. People felt like it was a discussion, not just a fight.”

It’s not simply managing your own feelings, although restraint on that front, as Gardiner shows, makes an enormous difference. Rather, it’s recognizing and acting in accord with the feelings of others.

“Not showing that you have an understanding for people’s feelings is absolutely a no-no,” says the CEO of the medical device firm. “It does not negate your ability to be tough and make tough decisions, or tell people when things are not going right or when they are not doing their jobs. You can do all of that with compassion.”

Most important, you can acquire this sensitivity. EQ isn’t an inborn intelligence so much as a muscle you build through experience. Recall Michelle Obama’s misstep in 2010 when she whisked her daughter and some forty friends off to Spain for a glitzy summer vacation. It was something Jackie O might have been celebrated for, but then, Jackie’s husband hadn’t gotten voted into office to fix a global financial crisis. To be spending lavishly on a European holiday when her fellow Americans were grappling with unemployment, protracted recession, and gutted retirement plans was a Romneyesque blunder, one that got her dubbed “a modern-day Marie Antoinette.” That was the last time the first lady acted so heedlessly; indeed, over the last several years Michelle Obama has acquired perfect pitch. For example, when Hadiya Pendleton, a fifteen-year-old honor student who’d performed at the 2012 inauguration, was killed in a random shooting just a week later, Michelle attended her funeral and met with her family. In April she returned to Chicago to meet with other high schoolers terrorized by gang shootings and make an impassioned plea for tighter gun control laws nationwide. No one who saw her deliver that speech could doubt the first lady felt our pain. The gaffes of her first years in the White House have been forgotten


Make no mistake: Your reputation does precede you, either bestowing gravitas or bleeding you of it. Before you enter a room or open your mouth, your reputation speaks for you—never more so than today, when word of your latest blunder or scandal races at lightning speed around the globe in 140 characters or less. People will have formed an opinion of you before you’re in a position to help them form it, which is why 56 percent of leaders concur that reputation matters a great deal in establishing EP for women and 57 percent agree it matters for men. Managing your personal brand is almost a job unto itself, lest it be managed for you by people who don’t hold your best interests at heart. You’ve got to be proactive in asserting who you are, what you stand for, and how you’d like to be perceived.

Even in Hollywood, where celebrities are fixated on honing their image, Angelina Jolie’s brand is viewed as a towering accomplishment. She’s clearly a standout beauty and accomplished actress, but she’s also a universally admired public figure with depth, heft, and clout. How did this happen? First off, she’s distinguished herself among movie stars by her dedication to underprivileged children the world over, several of whom she’s adopted. Her efforts seem to come from a deep place, and far exceed the photo-op moments that characterize celebrity “involvement” in good causes. After filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in Cambodia, she started traveling with UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, as a goodwill ambassador, a commitment that’s taken her on forty-some field missions since 2001 and won her, in 2012, a special envoy appointment. She started the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation to address conservation in Cambodia and the National Centre for Refugee and Immigrant Children to provide free legal aid to young asylum seekers, work that earned her membership on the Council on Foreign Relations. She does much of this work off the radar of the press, and yet the gravitas it has conferred is palpable.

Many a sterling reputation is forged in the crucible of scandal. Recall Magic Johnson, the all-star basketball player who contracted HIV/AIDS. When news of his illness broke in 1991, AIDS was a scourge associated with homosexuality and intravenous drug use. Johnson made a courageous choice: He made himself very publicly an example of the consequences of unprotected sexual activity, transforming the behavior of homosexuals and heterosexuals alike, and curbing the spread of AIDS as a result. Johnson’s reputation as a basketball legend regained its luster, and today he’s known as a former megastar, but also as a successful businessman, author, and philanthropist extraordinaire.

Bear in mind that your reputation is not a function simply of your deeds and actions: Social media and the ubiquity of smartphones—with their handy dandy cameras conspire to make your reputation a function of what people see, including your attire, office décor, automobile, vacation home, and collectibles. This visibility makes it imperative you style your environment as carefully as you style yourself—a point we’ll take up at length in chapter 4, on appearance. Even the photos on your desk or office wall say something about you, so make sure they communicate a message that’s in keeping with your mission. One chief financial officer at a tech giant in Silicon Valley learned this the hard way: She featured on her office wall a photograph taken of herself emerging from a limo clad in a very short black dress that revealed a stunning length of well-toned thigh. The image, which had appeared in a national glossy magazine, had accompanied an article trumpeting her rapid ascendance in an almost exclusively male culture—a triumph she felt warranted further exposure on her wall. But her colleagues felt otherwise. One of them insisted she take it down. “Is this what you want people to focus on? Is this your leading edge?” he asked her angrily. “It’s critical to the success of this firm that shareholders feel confident in your judgment. Anyone seeing this photo would have to question it.”


If there’s one name today that’s synonymous with visionary leadership traits, it’s Steve Jobs.

Jobs is also synonymous with innovation, but that’s because every product to emerge from Apple during his tenure demonstrated his commitment to machines and environments so beautifully and flawlessly designed that they supported an intensely pleasurable user experience. And Jobs consistently deployed his design values, applying them to Apple hardware, Apple software, Apple stores, and online Apple platforms such as iTunes. Even in his attire—black turtleneck, perfectly fitting blue jeans—Jobs telegraphed the simplicity and elegance of his creations.

Jobs’s means of achieving this vision secured him equal parts loathing and reverence, to hear his biographers tell it. A perfectionist incapable of compromise, he hounded his team to rework the first iPhone even as the launch deadline loomed. He deemed it too utilitarian, too masculine, too task-focused to seduce users into plunking down five hundred dollars for an untried product. The beauty of line and touch needed to be more obvious. He was as ruthless in paring down his teams as he was in paring away extraneous features on Apple products, arguing that “A” engineers were not only fifty times better to have than “C” engineers, but also that “A’s do not like playing with C’s.” 28 Jobs’s perfectionism and his impatience with people who didn’t share his veneration for design earned him a reputation as a control freak and an unfeeling boss. But because some of these very qualities aligned with Apple’s brand—flawless function, minimalist design, and a seamless marriage of the two—these traits served, paradoxically, to make Jobs revered by colleagues and customers the world over. In the decade leading up to his untimely death in 2011, Jobs secured an almost cultlike following. When he died he was deeply mourned. There were candlelight vigils in Shanghai, São Paulo, and San Francisco, and the glass walls of the Apple Store around the corner from my New York apartment were festooned with handwritten Post-its. I read two of the notes: A fourteen-year-old thanked Jobs for the fun she had with her iPhone, it was so easy to use and made her feel cool; a twenty-nine-year-old father wanted Jobs to know about his undying gratitude—his iPad was transforming the life prospects of his three-year-old autistic son.

Exceedingly few of us will conjure up or drive a vision as powerfully as Jobs did. Yet to communicate gravitas, it’s critical you telegraph vision. Fifty-four percent of the leaders we surveyed think “the vision thing” is key for men; 50 percent believe it matters a lot for women, too.

Joanna Coles, editor of Cosmopolitan, has long had a vision of spearheading a different kind of women’s magazine, one that has its fair share of fashion and fun but also encourages women to use their new clout to make a difference in this world. She has always believed that such a magazine could be enormously commercially successful. She finally got a chance to realize her vision when, in 2007, she was appointed editor of Marie Claire—a fashion magazine that focuses on thirtysomething year-old professional women. During her five-year tenure she shifted its editorial content so as to include important pieces of investigative journalism that targeted women’s issues. One of the first pieces she spearheaded was a story on women’s rape kits getting tossed to one side (shelved, filed, or just plain lost) instead of being tested and used in criminal prosecutions. This article proved riveting to readers—and drove circulation to a new high. It zeroed in on a young woman whose rapist was out there in the community raping other women because no one had bothered to log into a national database the DNA sample collected from her. But this piece, besides driving sales, also vaulted the magazine into a more serious realm, short-listing Marie Claire for a prestigious journalism award. With that success, Coles had license to embark on a socially conscious editorial agenda, one that helped shine a spotlight on women such as Angelina Jolie for their humanitarian achievements, and not just their fashion sense. Nowadays, she’s bringing the same sensibilities to Cosmopolitan, inspiring a whole new generation of women to take themselves seriously. It hasn’t always earned her praise or won her popularity trophies: Coles is hard-driving and famously demanding of her staff there is a whiff of The Devil Wears Prada about her. But this doesn’t concern her in the least. “I won’t be one of those people who lies on her deathbed thinking, ‘I wish I had spent less time in the office,’ ” she muses. “I will lie on my deathbed thinking, I wish I’d given everything one hundred and fifty percent instead of the occasional one hundred percent.”

Indeed, as Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments, points out, likability is what women loathe to sacrifice. Leadership cannot be a popularity contest, she affirms.

“There are people who absolutely don’t like me,” Hobson told me. “I make them uncomfortable. But I also know they respect me. I’m someone with whom they’d want to be in a foxhole. That’s how we talk about leadership traits at this firm: Who do you take into the foxhole? You don’t take people you like, you take someone who is going to save your life in a really bad situation. You don’t want a whiner. You don’t want someone who panics. And you certainly don’t want fake optimism,” she elaborates.

“You want brutal optimism. Great leaders are brutally optimistic.”

Leadership Traits Blunders 

In focus groups and interviews we asked senior executives (and white-collar employees across the board), What are the mistakes? What gets you in trouble on the gravitas front? And how serious is this trouble? These were the top picks: The blunders shown below trigger a wide range of consequences. While a star salesman can recover from such missteps as an offensive joke or a lack of depth on some technical issue, or a talented computer engineer can withstand accusations of bullying (as long as it’s in the past tense), there are two blunders that are career killers. Lack of integrity (think Jon Corzine) and sexual impropriety call into question people’s judgment and values on such a fundamental level that they completely lose their gravitas—and ability to lead.

Sexual impropriety takes some kind of prize as a career killer—at least for men. Recent headliners include former congressman Anthony Weiner, former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former four-star general and CIA director David Petraeus, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Mark Hurd. A quick Google search turns up a raft of other C-suite-ers who all recently became “formers” as a result of sexual shenanigans: CEO Brian Dunn of Best Buy, CEO Gary Friedman of Restoration Hardware, and CFO Christopher Kubasik of Lockheed Martin are among the recent crop.

Interestingly, while sexual impropriety can knock the powerful off the top perch, there’s usually a chance at recovery or some sort of consolation prize cushioning the fall—for men, at least. After being forced to resign when his extramarital affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell came to light in the course of an FBI investigation, David Petraeus was quickly snapped up by investment firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Company to become chairman of the firm’s newly created KKR Global Institute. He also landed faculty positions at the City University of New York and the University of California, Los Angeles, where he was given a named chair. Mark Hurd engineered a similar comeback. Six weeks after he was shot down from the top perch of HP as a result of a sexual peccadillo, Hurd became co-president of Oracle—thanks to his close friendship with Larry Ellison. Meanwhile, Brian Dunn and Christopher Kubasik have both received multimillion-dollar severance packages. Not bad!

The women involved in these sexual peccadillos fare much less well. One reason is that many of these relationships involve a senior male leader and a female subordinate who has neither the power nor the prestige to help her recover. For example, in the wake of her affair with Petraeus, Paula Broadwell was disciplined by the military and lost both her commission in the reserves and part of her retirement benefits. The female contractor who allegedly carried on that affair with Mark Hurd has not been able to find work since the scandal broke and is currently living in a trailer park in New Jersey. Sad to relate, gravitas blunders are steeped in bias and inequity—but that doesn’t make them any less real.

How to Deepen Your Leadership Gravitas

Gravitas is that je ne sais quoi quality that some people have that makes other people judge them born leaders.

But born leaders are made, oftentimes through their own systematic efforts. They live intentionally, guided by a set of values or a vision for their lives that compels them to seize every chance to put their convictions into practice. We gravitate to them because they telegraph that they know where they’re going—a rare and intoxicating certainty that most of us lack. That is the real font of their gravitas.

So consider what larger vision you’re here to fulfill, and make sure it informs each of your everyday actions. If you can articulate it, you’re well on your way to achieving it. People with a clear goal who show they are determined to achieve it exude gravitas, which in turn bolsters their chances of securing the support they’ll need to achieve their goals.

You can be one of them. Here are some quick wins and inspirational stories to get you started.

Surround yourself with people who are better than you. “Best piece of advice I ever got,” says James Charrington, chairman of Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) at BlackRock. “Recognize your own weaknesses, and hire people who will complement your strengths by addressing your weaknesses.

Those I’ve seen struggle to move forward invariably are those who have trouble recognizing their shortcomings. When you talk about what you’re not good at, it helps others see what you really are good at—and your gravitas grows for admitting it.”

Be generous with credit. As Deb Elam, head of diversity at GE, observes, nothing undermines followership faster than a boss who hogs all the credit for him or herself. Shining a light on those who helped you score a win underscores your integrity and sense of fairness, which in turn inspires others to give even more of themselves.

Stick to what you know. Do not shoot from the hip; do not claim to know more than you do or possibly could know. Credit Suisse’s Michelle Gadsden-Williams learned this back when she worked for a pharmaceutical firm and asserted to the executive committee that the playing field for black employees wasn’t level. But she was careful to back up her assertion by offering concrete examples culled strictly from her own experience—and couched them as such. That way, she says, her insights were received as firsthand testimony and not a generalized indictment.

Show humility. Nothing signals you’re emotionally attuned more than your own willingness to admit mistakes and own up to failings and shortcomings. BlackRock’s Charrington doesn’t hesitate to point out that he lacks a college degree, a very disarming revelation in this age of resume inflation and hyperbolic CVs. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg likewise disarms detractors by volunteering embarrassing details of her seemingly flawless life, owning up to her seventypound weight gain during her first pregnancy (“Project Whale was named after me”), her failed first marriage (“No matter what I accomplished professionally, it paled in comparison to the scarlet letter D stitched on my chest”), and even her fear of being number two in her children’s eyes (“Stay-at-home mothers can make me feel guilty and, at times, intimidate me”).29 Far from undermining her gravitas or tarnishing her reputation, her humility serves to bridge the gap between herself (the $1.6 billion woman) and her followers. It’s hard to paint a mother who discovers head lice on her kids on the corporate jet as an out-of-touch billionaire.

Smile more. This was advice Mellody Hobson received some twenty years ago from one of Motorola’s most senior women. At the time, eager to demonstrate her toughness as a female on her way up, she was flabbergasted at the suggestion. Now she spreads the word. “Smiling a lot projects happiness and likability, and people want to work with those who they like and those who are happy,” Hobson says. “There are energy givers, and energy takers. Who do you want to spend time with? Who are the people you run to the phone when they call and who are the ones you let go to voice mail? I want people to want to take my call.”

Empower others’ presence to build your own. Others will see you as a leader when you concentrate on making those around you act responsibly and win visibility for themselves, says Carolyn Buck Luce, a partner at accounting firm EY who recently retired. “Think about your impact, not in terms of deliverables, but in terms of realizing larger goals for the firm,” she says. “See the bigger picture: You’re a conductor of an orchestra. Executive presence is not what you do with your presence, it’s also what you do with other people’s presence.”

Snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Steve Jobs did it when he reclaimed his role at Apple after an eleven-year hiatus during which his successor nearly ran the company into the ground. But perhaps the most notable exemplar of this is Al Gore, who was, for a few days in 2000, president-elect of the United States before the Supreme Court snatched away his victory. Ten years later Gore secured himself a Nobel Prize, and a place in history, that the presidency might not have conferred: as a prophet willing to speak an inconvenient truth, and as a visionary whom we entrust not only to show us the future but also to guide us safely through it. In so doing, he utterly transformed his image from a wooden lifelong public servant into a Saturday Night Live host with a devilish sense of humor as well as a disarming sense of humility. He is, as New York magazine put it, the ultimate Davos man, a leader whose credibility and gravitas are held in global esteem.

Drive change rather than be changed.

For the first thirteen years of her twenty-five-year run at Goldman Sachs, Gail Fierstein transformed the businesses she partnered with—first as a software developer, then as a project manager, then as a product line manager. It fell to Fierstein and her team to solve some of the firm’s thorniest challenges in terms of managing risk and introducing new product. “In tech, it’s not just about innovating; you need to be thinking about worst-case scenarios and making sure they don’t happen,” she points out. “You’ve got to get into the detail, ask questions; you’ve got to keep challenging the group and your own assumptions.”

But when she moved into human capital management as the Technology HR business partner, Fierstein’s interrogative style didn’t go over very well: “I’d ask about implementation, about how we were communicating, and how the team would support it because I was thinking twenty steps down the road. But either my colleagues in HR weren’t used to getting questions or they didn’t think my concerns about process were relevant, because to their way of thinking, I wasn’t being supportive. I wasn’t being a team player.

“That shocked me,” she continues. “It was the complete opposite of tech, where the more questions you ask, the more you’re considered part of the team, because it shows you’re collectively working toward a solution.”

So Fierstein stepped into the role of change agent. “You have to worry when I don’t ask questions,” she told her colleagues in HR. “And we all have to worry if you’re not thinking twenty moves ahead.” Subsequently, at every opportunity, Fierstein put a spotlight on her style difference. But at the same time, she says, she became more sensitive to the style differences of others. “Change works two ways,” she observes. “In order to help others get to know me I provided them with context. I learned to say to junior people meeting me for the first time, ‘I’m going to ask you a lot of questions. The more questions I ask, the more support I have for your proposal. So don’t misinterpret my intent.’ ”

Her approach worked: Fierstein was promoted to managing director and increased her span of responsibilities as HR business partner to eight divisions.

Today she’s applying her toolkit to a whole new challenge, bringing women in the IT community together as a force for social good through her involvement with NPower, a nonprofit that harnesses the power of the tech community to bridge the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) career gap for nonprofits. Once again, she says, she’s bringing an execution/process mindset to the team. “Sometimes the very thing an organization wants you to change about yourself,” Fierstein concludes, “is the very thing you most need to change about them.” She adds, “When you acknowledge that, and start acting as a force for the greater good, others will follow your lead.”



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