Choosing sides — Leadership decisions aren’t always black and white

When Albert “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap was the CEO at Sunbeam in the late ’90s, he had a reputation for ruthlessness. Besides massively downsizing the company, he was also known to intimidate everyone around him and resort to yelling and fist pounding.

While extreme, Dunlap’s behavior is an example of the type of “dictator” leadership that used to be fairly common in the C-suite. Rules were rules, there were no exceptions for anything and people were just a line item on a budget. Need to cut thousands of jobs? Don’t think twice about it.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Christ-like leader. This leader focuses more on building people up rather than tearing them down. This type of leader understands that there are rules, but sometimes to do the right thing, the rules need to be broken. For example, during the economic downturn, some Christ-like leaders went well beyond what was called for to make sure laid-off employees were taken care of.

They made sure they had the use of office resources to look for a new job and did everything they could to lessen the hardships. They weren’t required to do this; it was just the right thing to do. They saw employees as human, not just numbers on a spreadsheet.

Does it cost money to take the more humane route with your leadership? Yes and no. From a short-term, bottom-line perspective, it probably does cost a few more dollars to help people through a hardship. But long term, it can pay dividends. By treating people with respect and doing the right thing, it helps eliminate animosity toward you and your company from both the ex-employees and current ones. Maybe there are some good employees who you wanted to keep, but couldn’t afford. By showing compassion, when the economy turned around, they were far more likely to consider coming back than if they had just been shown the door with little regard to their well-being.

And what happens when these ex-employees end up in key positions in companies that could be customers? Do you think an ex-employee who you mistreated is going to buy anything from you or recommend your company to someone? It’s a small world, and what goes around often comes around, so it’s always best to treat people as best you can.

You can lead like a dictator and still get results. But do the ends justify the means? Will you conquer all, only to find yourself alone with no friends, the equivalent of Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol?” Or will you have an epiphany and realize there’s a better way to do things?

During this holiday season, think about your leadership style and the long-term effect it has on people’s lives. If this exercise makes you uncomfortable, then maybe it’s time to change how you lead. ●

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