Last week I wrote about retired Air Force Col. Lee Ellis, a Vietnam War hero who spent five years as a POW, and who parlayed what he learned from that experience into a career spent in service to corporate America as a leadership adviser. In my recent interview with Ellis, whose forthcoming book, “Engage with Honor: Building a Culture of Courageous Accountability” will be released in September, he offered some sage leadership advice that I covered in that post. But as the interview progressed, he shared some additional insights that I found to be tremendously valuable.
I began this portion of the interview by referring to a keynote speech Ellis had made in 2014, in which he recounted a war story about how the POWs’ commanding officer, who was collaborating with the enemy, had to be relieved of duty by his subordinates. So I asked Ellis if he had any advice for business leaders on how to deal with a situation in which it becomes clear that the CEO is unfit for command. He said the first step is to check yourself to make sure you’re not overreacting:
It may be against your standards, but is it really against the legal, moral and ethical standards of the business? You need to bounce that off of any trusted advisor that you go to, probably in your company, and say, ‘Hey, this is what I’m seeing — are you seeing that? Do you think that’s right?’
Think about Enron — if those guys had talked it over and said, ‘This is not right, we’ve got to confront these two guys’ early on, they might have helped save their company. But you’ve got to make sure you have your facts straight — you can’t go on feelings there. Then you might get someone to go with you to confront your CEO and say, ‘This is what we’re seeing, and this isn’t legal or ethical. What are you thinking, and why are you doing this? We need to straighten this out.’ The CEO could obviously fire you, but then you could really be a whistleblower if you’ve truly got your facts straight. Usually, though, when it’s somebody at that level, unless you know him personally and have relationship capital with him, he’s probably never going to listen to you. He’s probably going to fire you. So you’ve got to be ready to pay the price.
Ellis and I are from the same generation, so I was eager to get his thoughts on how he would compare the leadership strengths and weaknesses of our generation with those of the millennial generation. He said our generation was much more responsible at an earlier age, because we had to be:
We had chores to do and we were depended upon by the family unit to meet our responsibilities. Our families generally weren’t as affluent, so when we finished school, we knew we had to get at it and go make a living for ourselves. Most people got married at age 20 to 22 or 23 back then, and they immediately had families that they were responsible for. Today, we don’t have as much work for kids to do, so they haven’t learned about responsibility. It’s not their fault, they just haven’t had the same experience.
I asked Ellis if he has found that there are gender-specific leadership strengths that each gender can learn from the other. His response:
I think women are much more willing to be vulnerable and open, and I think they have the two sides of the brain working more connectedly than men do. So they’re a little bit more flexible and versatile then men — they multitask a little better than men. I think women leaders are doing a great job in general. I think they have stronger integrity than men — men are concerned about what the other men are going to think. Women have their concerns about other women, but not so much on character and integrity. Men will go along with stuff, rather than call it out; women are more likely to call it out.
On the other hand, men are more willing to take risks — they’re a little bit more entrepreneurial, and a little bit less concerned about the financial aspects of it, sometimes to their detriment. But you have to take risk in business. Men can be more stubborn, which can be a good trait as a businessperson and an entrepreneur, because it makes them more persistent. You get started, and when it fails, you’ve just got to be persistent — adjust it and change a little bit, and come back and try again. Just keep persisting.
Finally, I asked Ellis for his thoughts on business leaders entering politics, including presidential politics, and whether business leadership is an adequate foundation for presidential leadership. He said it can be:
Harry Truman was a business guy who was a military war hero, as well. But I think business leaders do understand a lot about budgets, money, power, and so on. I think they’re also typically going to be less concerned about trying to please everybody and look good, and less likely to say one thing and do another. They will get into that, because I think everybody who goes into politics gets into the mode of saying one thing to get reelected, and doing another, unfortunately.
So I do think they bring some true assets to the role; the downside is they don’t know how things get done in Washington, which is a plus and a minus. The minus is that things still have to be done by process, and they’re dealing with civil servants and all that mess. They don’t know how the three branches work quite as well, and they don’t have the relationships to fall back on that they’re used to having in business.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.