One of the most powerful lessons from 2012 is how leaders use their influence.
Consider some examples of career sky dives from three men highly regarded in their field who failed to use their influence in ways to keep trust with their constituencies: former CIA Director David Petraeus (an affair with his biographer); former Penn State University President Graham Spanier (criminal charges filed); and Lance Armstrong (stripped of all seven Tour de France medals).
Demonstrating effective personal influence tackling social or political issues is a hard road for CEOs, presumably easier for politicians. In the examples of the leaders of the City of New York, Chick-Fil-A, and Patagonia there were mixed results.
At the University of Virgina (UVA), influence was exerted over organizational change in a manner that drew widespread criticism.
While not all politicians are willing to risk using political capital to further social issues, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg risked unpopularity in escalating his war on obesity by banning the sale of large sugary drinks. The ban approved in September by New York City’s Health Board takes effect in March 2013. New York is the first U. S. city to take such action.
“It’s not perfect, Bloomberg said, “it’s not the only answer, it’s not the only cause of people being overweight – but we’ve got to do something. We have an obligation to warn you when things are not good for your health.”
Chick-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy found himself in a firestorm of controversy last summer when the national restaurant chain used company dollars to support anti-gay marriage groups; this pleased some patrons, disenfranchised others and resulted in widespread protests that continued with different players once the company indicated it would no longer support political or social issues.
Patagonia’s founder and chairman Yvon Chouinard has become a leading corporate voice in environmental responsibility by taking small, consistent steps to address how his company does business. He has served as a volunteer adviser to Wal-Mart in green business practices. Patagonia’s mission statement seeks to bring people together: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”
Chouinard’s 2012 book The Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned From Patagonia’s First 40 Years includes a checklist of 263 recommendations to help companies benchmark where they are and where they might want to be to improve their environmental track record.
An accrediting body accused UVA’s Board of Visitors of using its influence to compromise the institution’s integrity, and failing to follow appropriate governance procedures in the ouster of President Teresa Sullivan. Sullivan was reinstated after faculty and student protests.
Rector Helen Dragas (Board of Visitors’ chair) had a vision for the university that didn’t include Sullivan leading it; Sullivan had been hired two years before. Citing challenges facing higher education, Dragas led an effort to force her out that met with strong, but civil, resistance from university constituencies who supported both Sullivan and a university culture that didn’t handle disagreements in the manner used by the Board of Visitors.
Governor Bob McDonnell reappointed Dragas to another term; however she has been meeting with Virginia legislative leaders lobbying to keep her position; the Legislature, which vets gubernatorial appointments, will vote in January on her reappointment.
Authority has limits. Influence fueled by earned trust has an infinite spectrum in which to operate.
Gael O’Brien December 31, 2012
Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine; her December 2012 column is “Women in the C-Suite: Finding Ways to Break the Seal.” She is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine.