Leadership challenges Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2008

Business leaders act as the captains of organizational ships. A preeminent leader sets the course, directs

the crew and ensures that everyone emerges safely through the storm.

“The best measure of a leader is during times like we are experiencing right now,” says Dale F. Schumacher, CEO of Tampa Bay Federal Credit Union. “When the economy is good, many foibles are masked. During difficult times, shortcomings are magnified. Excellent leaders roll up their sleeves and get the work done… whatever it takes.”

Smart Business learned more from Schumacher about the enormous impact of leadership on an organization’s performance and about how you can constantly improve your skills.

What are the central qualities of a good leader?

The first is integrity. People must believe the leader will do the right thing, which means something slightly different than doing things right. Great leaders do what’s in the best interest of the organization, the customers and the stakeholders, even when it’s not in their own best interest.

The second is complete honesty. There are degrees of honesty, and a good leader tells the whole truth. Complete honesty includes discussing issues as they come up or saying that you’re not at liberty to talk about something if you’re under a nondisclosure agreement. Good leaders don’t deny knowing about something they want to avoid.

Next is humility. Never forget where you came from. I don’t do my work by myself, and I’m fortunate to be around people that make me look good on a daily basis. Every leader needs to recognize the intrinsic value of every person around them. People want to know where they are heading.

How can executives effectively assess their leadership abilities?

Honest self-reflection plays an essential role in assessing and improving leadership skills. Leaders should also constantly ask for feedback to find out if they are providing what their employees need to succeed. After every meaningful interaction, I try to ask how it went and if the other person got what they wanted or understood why they didn’t get what they wanted. At the conclusion of each meeting, I go around the table and ask each person individually how the meeting could have been better or what could have been done differently. As the leader, you have the final say on decisions but it’s important to solicit and respect other people’s opinions.

How can poor leadership hurt an organization?

Chaos comes immediately to my mind. Leaders that don’t have vision, exhibit integrity, or build trust lower the morale in the workplace. If employees lose their sense of common purpose and feel demoralized, they will choose to focus on other things that make them feel good — like family life or social activities. This has a direct negative impact on the bottom line through lower productivity, which leads to escalating costs to hire more staff or pay overtime. In a negative atmosphere, sales also tend to fall off.

What specific actions or attitudes create this negative impact?

Leaders can do many things that hurt the organization and foster a lack of trust. Some will ignore the current status of the business, thinking they are above the fray. Some will tell people what they think they want to hear, avoiding the tough decisions. Most will stray from a ‘say-do gap’ or a lack of vision.

The ‘say-do gap’ refers to times when you say something is important to you or the organization but then you act inconsistently with that stated belief. For instance, I could tell you that punctuality is really important, but then if I’m perpetually late that creates a ‘say-do gap.’ I believe anything can happen once, but if you habitually act inconsistently with your stated values, that goes a long way toward creating a lack of trust. Other common ‘say-do gap’ situations include saying cost control is important, yet treating certain customers lavishly. Or you could say everyone is equal, yet there could be a perceived unfairness in the way people are treated.

A lack of vision — when a leader acts like a yo-yo or a rubber ball — also creates problems in an organization. Change is going to happen, and it’s important to the long-term survival of organizations to adapt. But a redirection of the business on a daily or hourly basis keeps organizations from ever getting good at anything. Effective leaders have a vision of where the organization should and wants to head in the next three, five or 10 years, and a plan for consistently pursuing that vision.

DALE F. SCHUMACHER, CCUL, CCUE, is CEO of Tampa Bay Federal Credit Union and a director at Tampa Bay WorkForce Alliance. Reach him at (813) 383-2377 or dschumacher@tampabayfederal.com.