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We can still learn from leaders who don’t walk the walk

5 min read


I like to think of our daily SmartBrief on Leadership newsletter as an essential read for current or aspiring leaders seeking guidance on being better managers, strategists and innovators. I believe we generally deliver such a product, notwithstanding the obvious bias that I edit the newsletter.

One challenge we face in summarizing the best of leadership and management coverage is that, understandably, much of the advice is black and white. It is  often offered as a direct order from the leaders of today or yesteryear — “do this because it worked here”; “do this because so-and-so says so”; “don’t do this because it was a disaster for them.” This sort of advice is helpful and easy to digest. But too much all-or-nothing advice leads to simple thinking. We learn how to grow and how to lead from more than seemingly perfect people and examples; we learn what not to do from more than unmitigated failure. And we should make sure to consider ideas separately from their sources.

This was illustrated for me recently when SmartBrief on Leadership featured a LinkedIn blog post from J.P. Morgan CEO and Chairman Jamie Dimon. I believe, then and now, that it contains building-block advice of strong leadership, the type that leaders must continue to reflect on as they move up the ranks, gain power and money, and necessarily become more removed from the front lines. If nothing else, it’s Dimon revealing the standards of excellence he must meet going forward.

I also knew that some readers would disapprove of advice from Dimon, whether because of the financial industry’s tarnished reputation, the “London Whale” incident, or the battle Dimon had been waging against attempts to separate his CEO and chairman duties.

As expected, I received a few e-mails that week. All were reasonable, thoughtful and concerned about trumpeting leadership advice from someone who, it could be well argued, was falling short on meeting his own standards. Their question, put simply, is, “Why should we take advice from leaders who we feel have failed to live it?” There’s a basic set of steps for how people too often deal with that question:

1. Does this person give good advice? If yes, then:
2. Is this person a good person, either in reputation or how I regard him? If yes, then the advice is good and proudly disseminated. If no, then:
3a. Do I agree with this person or have a vested interest in defending this person? If yes, the advice may be good, but we’re often defending it for personal reasons and not on the merits.
3b. Do I have a vested interest in tearing this person down or an opposition to this person’s ideals or goals? If yes, then the person is cast aside, too “flawed” to be of value.

To find a better answer than 3a or 3b, one that values the merit of the advice first but doesn’t completely ignore the messenger, I looked to John Baldoni, a SmartBlogs contributor who also writes at Forbes. He tackled this issue in May regarding the leadership/management book from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Baldoni spells out the problem clearly:

The problem arises from the fact that Rumsfeld the author is not Rumsfeld the executive, who served as Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration.

Does this mean rejecting the advice, which if read without a byline would appear sound, if often basic? Does this mean, for fans of Rumsfeld, giving no quarter to any criticism? Hopefully, neither. Baldoni advises:

[I]s it okay to listen to some who writes well but does not hold himself to the same standards? My response is yes. When it comes to leadership you can learn as much from rascals, maybe even more so, than from saints. The challenge for readers is to read what he writes through the lens of history.

Let’s be clear: Some people aren’t worth listening to because of the example they set, whether in actions or words. And some advice is sullied by the person giving it — Eliot Spitzer lecturing Anthony Weiner on sexual conduct, for instance. And the opposite is true — just because your favorite philosopher, politician or executive says something doesn’t make it worth heeding.

One broad aspect of leadership is being able to absorb information, consider in light of circumstances, context and variables, and make the best possible decision with the information at hand. Sometimes, we’ll fail, but that’s OK — failure leads to better-informed second tries and opportunities to change. We value this process in our work; we should also apply that critical thinking to whom we look to for inspiration.

Are we meeting this standard on the blog and in the newsletter? How can we do better? Let me know in the comments or via e-mail.

James daSilva is a senior editor at SmartBrief and edits newsletters including SmartBrief on Leadership.