Therefore, it will come as a surprise to many leaders that a lack of ability or skill is not your biggest risk. In fact, people are often forgiving of mistakes, provided that errors are acknowledged and addressed. However, the types of mistakes that truly damage a leader’s career relate to a lack of integrity, for which most people are resolutely unforgiving.
In their article, “Understanding Threats to Leader Trustworthiness: Why It’s Better to Be Called ‘Incompetent’ than ‘Immoral,’” Kimberly D. Elsbach and Steven C. Currall compare two instances in which college football coaches were judged for their trustworthiness.
In 2009, Texas Tech University head football coach Mike Leach was regarded highly among students and athletes. In all of his ten years at the helm, Coach Leach consistently led his team to bowl games and had achieved the most career victories of any coach at the university.[i] Nevertheless, when allegations arose that Coach Leach was mistreating players in a way that some described as inhumane, he was suddenly out of a job.
Five years earlier, in 2004, Colorado University football coach Gary Barnett found himself in an unfortunate position when it was discovered that members of his team had sexually assaulted female students on campus. After several months of paid administrative leave, a state investigative panel cleared Coach Barnett of responsibility and the University’s president reinstated him. According to the New York Times, “The panel's report said there was no evidence that Barnett approved of the practice, but it criticized him for his lax oversight of recruiting.[ii]”
Elsbach and Currall point out that while Coach Leach was perceived as highly competent; he was also viewed as ‘unethical,’ ‘arrogant,’ and ‘insubordinate.’ However, Coach Barnett was accused of being ‘stupid’ and making ‘poor decisions,’ but was not seen as unethical.[iii] He therefore kept his job, despite the terrible circumstances.
Additional insights from Elsbach and Currall:
- Actions labeled as “incompetent” can be attributed to a range of factors, including things that are outside a leader’s control. Errors of this nature can also be viewed as temporary lapses caused by inexperience, and can be addressed with training and reprimands.
- Actions labeled as “Immoral” are not as easily forgiven. Lapses in morality are viewed as within the individual’s control, regardless of the situation. Most people view a lack of integrity as a permanent character trait that is not likely to improve over time.
- The public assigns these labels quickly, and it is not easy to change a label once the perception is cast.
Implications for business leaders:
The most significant lesson from Elsbach and Currall’s research is that leaders need to monitor how decisions and events are perceived, both within a company and externally. When mistakes occur, swift, accurate, and clear communication is essential to remove suspicion and establish confidence. That said, I identified three types of events that leaders will want to monitor closely:
- Firing an employee: This is one of the most difficult decisions a leader makes; unfortunately it’s also a critical time for managing perception. In this instance, perception of fairness among team members and select internal business partners is critical. Meet in person with the former employee’s team members and internal business contacts, and give them time to ask questions. Additionally, be sure to communicate the decision-making process in order to set a tone of objectivity and evenhandedness.
- Process changes, re-organizations, and in-team promotions: Again, a perception of fairness is paramount and it is best achieved through direct messaging. Whereas an employee’s departure affects many people indirectly, process changes affect them directly and can trigger a sense of insecurity. Trustworthy leaders should address how these changes support the best interests of employees along with long-term business goals. If the communication strategy focuses on business goals alone, the leader’s character can be perceived as cold and lacking integrity.
- Errors that don’t impact customers: Typically, businesses have well-established crisis communications plans, which are triggered by events that affect customers or the public at large. However, employee goodwill can be damaged by internal events that never affect the public. Leaders need to take these issues seriously and beware of how quickly labels are cast. Be extremely transparent with team members and clarify the process for addressing mistakes and seeking improvement.
Although the business world, not unlike the world of sports, focuses heavily on competency and success achieved through hard work, it turns out that a lack of integrity, whether real or perceived, is the true death knell of any leader’s career.
Put differently, in the words of Elsbach and Currall, “If given a choice, our framework suggests it is better to be called incompetent than immoral.”
[i] Thamel, Pete and Thayer, Evans. (2009, December 30). Leach is Fired Over Treatment of Player. The New York Times.
[ii] Archives. (2004, May 28). College Football; Colorado Football Coach Reinstated After Scandal. New York Times.
[iii] Currall, Steven C., and Elsbach, Kimberly D. (2012). Understanding Threats to Leader Trustworthiness: Why It’s Better to Be Called “Incompetent” than “Immoral.” “Restoring Trust in Organizations and Leaders: Enduring Challenges and Emerging Answer.,” Oxford University Press.