The Guy on the Fifty Dollar Bill

Ulysses S. Grant had greatness in spades.

He was the victorious general in the Civil War – and perhaps the greatest military leader in American history. He was a popular two-term president during tumultuous times, and a generally effective and successful political leader. He was an outspoken and admirable defender of the civil rights of African Americans and American Indians – almost startlingly so, given the times. (He created the Department of Justice specifically to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments guaranteeing the civil and voting rights of the freed slaves.)

Grant was the author of what is generally considered the best-written memoir by any president in history, composed heroically as he was dying of cancer. And when he died, the country and particularly New York City ground to a halt to honor the fallen hero as his body was buried at the site of the soon-to-be-built Grant’s Tomb. The widespread reverence with which he was held can be shown by the fact that two of his pall bearers were former Confederate generals.

But Grant was not great at everything. Far from it. As described in the marvelous new biography by H.W. Brands, Grant washed out of the Army a decade or so before the Civil War because of drunkenness. He failed in several subsequent careers. He went broke as a farmer, and in the months leading up to the war he distinguished himself as St. Louis’s worst real estate salesman. He constantly struggled to support his family financially, and he was a naïve investor, losing more than his entire net worth late in life in Wall Street speculation. He was too trusting of friends and often played his political cards poorly. He suffered from a strong streak of anti-Semitism. And he was a reluctant and uninspiring public speaker. (Those of you who identified with the fear of public speaking in a recent blog post of mine might take some comfort in knowing that Grant never feared bullets or cannon balls, but the thought of public speaking triggered a migraine.)

We are accustomed to appreciating that public figures can be both worthy and flawed. (Bill Clinton, anyone?) But we are less nuanced in appreciating the strengths and weaknesses of the people we deal with every day. And we are particularly challenged to evaluate our own talents – especially when those around us tend to give us more credit than we deserve.

This seems to be particularly true with nonprofit CEOs. As consultant Thomas McLaughlin writes, “With the possible exception of a self-financed sole proprietor, no other managerial position in the American economy carries the potential for power to such a degree as the nonprofit CEO.”

McLaughlin doesn’t claim that a nonprofit CEO is more powerful in absolute terms, say, than the CEO of General Electric. But he does make a good point about how unchecked a nonprofit CEO’s power is within that organization. Whereas a corporate CEO has to answer to shareholders, and whereas a corporate CEO has a board of directors with a financial stake (stock holdings) in the company, a nonprofit CEO deals with a volunteer board of directors and relatively little public scrutiny. So if a nonprofit CEO wants to run roughshod over an organization, it may be a very long time before someone intervenes.

But the typical problem is not out-of-control CEOs committing terrible acts. It’s well-intentioned CEOs underperforming because they don’t have a good read on their own strengths and weaknesses. They may be marvelous at envisioning the future, but they’re lousy at evaluating new hires. They may be terrific at projecting the organization to the outside world, but they are bad at clarifying priorities to their staff. They may be great thinkers but poor writers, or terrific with clients but impatient with colleagues, or quick with numbers but bad with follow-through. In short, they are human.

The problem is not that the CEOs are imperfect. The problem is that they often have no idea about their weaknesses. That’s because people are reluctant to point out those imperfections. The CEOs are powerful. Staff members don’t want to criticize and fall into the CEO’s bad graces. And the board doesn’t want to stir up trouble. (Board members are volunteers, after all. It’s easier to sweep things under the rug and hope that issues resolve themselves before the next meeting.)

In my last post I recalled the time when I was an executive director, and the staff did an intervention to let me know how poorly I was delegating responsibilities. The importance of that story is two-fold: the incredibly positive (if painful) impact it had on me, and the rarity with which these moments occur in nonprofit life. Among the staff there may be grumbling, complaining, eye-rolling, and whispered snarky comments; in extreme circumstances staff members may even go over the head of the CEO and complain to the board. But giving genuine and direct feedback to a nonprofit CEO happens all too rarely. Staff are afraid to offer it. CEOs are reluctant to solicit it.

Nonprofit CEOs need to view their own performance with as much objectivity and honesty as they can muster. Nonprofit boards need to help the CEOs by taking seriously their responsibility to conduct a thorough annual CEO review, one that incorporates honest appraisals by the staff. On a day-to-day basis, the staff need to look for opportunities to give feedback to the CEO. Most importantly, the CEO needs to create an atmosphere where that kind of feedback is welcomed and appreciated.

And everyone involved needs to remember that the CEO – any CEO – is not perfect. The ideal measure is not infallibility. The sooner everyone can recognize and articulate the strengths and shortcomings of the leader, the more effectively that person can work to build on his or her strengths, get support for the weaknesses, and do the job well.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2013. All rights reserved.

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2 Comments. Leave new

  • Alan, you are so correct but the CEO has to be very secure in his or her own skin for this to work. Nothing is worse than an insecure CEO because no one can predict their reaction to any given situation. The solution often deepens the insecurity no matter how much you sandwich criticism with praise. You are clearly secure in your own skin and therefore improvement can grow.

    Reply
  • You are a great writer. Please keep it up!

    Reply

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