Sharp(ie) Insights Into Speakup Culture

We return today to leadership lessons from President Trump, who has given us another example of how not to lead large organizations. Compliance professionals who care about developing a speakup culture should take note, since Trump’s behavior illuminates several important points about the relationship between CEO and employees.

The incident in question is, of all things, that wacky tale about Trump insisting that Alabama was a possible target of Hurricane Dorian. 

The story started Sept. 1, when Trump first tweeted that several states, including Alabama, “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.” That led the Birmingham, Ala., office of the National Weather Service to post its own tweet 20 minutes later correcting that “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from Dorian.” The Birmingham office did this because Trump’s incorrect statement prompted a flurry of Alabama residents to call the National Weather Service, asking what was going on.

Then came several days of Trump and the media sniping at each other. Apparently Trump had included Alabama in his tweet because he’d seen a weather projection two days earlier that included the tiniest sliver of Alabama’s southeastern corner as possibly in Dorian’s path. By the time Trump made his tweet on Sept. 1, however, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center had updated projections to show Dorian posing no threat to Alabama. 

Photo: AP

The silly phase started on Sept. 4. That’s when the White House released the famous photo of Trump holding a map of possible Dorian paths, where someone (reportedly Trump himself) marked up the map with a Sharpie pen to include Alabama. The true forecast did not include Alabama at all. 


By Friday, however, the story turned creepy. First came a statement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the National Weather Service, that disavowed the corrective tweet from Birmingham. Then came news on Sunday morning that the NOAA had circulated a warning on Sept. 1 — hours after Trump started this whole mess — that NWS staff should not contradict the president’s words. 

That brings us up to date. Now let’s get to the lessons for compliance officers who ponder how to build a corporate culture based on ethical conduct and speaking up. 

The Best Leaders Are Humble

I belabored the timeline above to show how obsessed Trump was with proving that he was right — even if he had to doctor a hurricane map to do so; even if bureaucrats in the NOAA had to publish anonymous statements in his defense and order employees to stay silent. What does behavior like that say about the quality of an organization’s leader? 

Well, I couldn’t help but think of Good to Great, the seminal management textbook published in 2001 by Jim Collins. Collins had scrounged the Fortune 500 to find 11 firms that had done reasonably well for a long while — and then, suddenly, started outperforming their peers year after year. Why was that, he wondered? What were they doing right?

Collins identified numerous traits common among those 11 firms that had gone from merely good to truly great. Foremost was the quality of leadership. All 11 firms had what Collins called “Level 5 leaders,” at the pinnacle of leadership. Here’s how Collins describes them:

Level 5 leaders display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. They’re incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not themselves. While Level 5 leaders can come in many personality packages, they are often self-effacing, quiet, reserved, and even shy.

Level 5 leaders came to mind because Trump’s behavior last week was essentially the opposite of that ideal. Trump is insecure, ignorant, boastful, and whiny, more interested in making himself look good than in the overall success of the organization he leads. No wonder his Administration tells employees not to contradict the Dear Leader — whether that’s yelling at the National Park Service in 2017 about the size of his inauguration crowds, or the NOAA now telling employees not to correct erroneous information about hurricane paths.

In other words, Trump is the antithesis of a Level 5 leader, and he is pursuing the antithesis of a speakup culture. The two things are joined inextricably. An organization with a leader like Trump doesn’t just ignore the importance of a speakup culture; it aggressively pursues a culture of complacency. Ethical conduct is not the most important priority at those organizations; the ego of the leader is. 

That also makes me wonder whether the inverse is true: Does an organization needs a Level 5 leader to achieve a true speakup culture? 

We could even plot the relationship between CEO and speakup culture on a line. At one end is Trump, working to quash discussion of truth and good conduct time and again. At the other is the ideal Level 5 leader, with a perfect speakup culture at his or her organization. 


Where does your CEO fall on that line? How often do you see him or her behaving in ways closer to Level 5 versus Level zero? What about other senior executives, or the board? What about yourself? 

Success and Speakup Culture

Most of us would agree that the traits of a Level 5 leader support a strong speakup culture. Intuitively, it just feels right: executives who are humble, self-effacing, and more interested in organizational success than their own will want employees to speak freely. 

We should remember, however, that academic research also bears out this same point. It’s what business professors from George Washington University and the University of Utah demonstrated last year, when they studied internal reporting data and found that higher rates of internal reporting lead to better business outcomes

My contention has always been that their findings shouldn’t surprise anyone. An organization with higher rates of internal reporting is an organization where employees are more ready to bring problems to management’s attention — and they wouldn’t be in that talkative mood unless they also believed management wanted to solve those problems, rather than punish the employees raising them. 

That’s how all of this fits into one larger canvas for compliance officers to consider. A speakup culture is something we all want to achieve, but that depends on how managers and senior leaders drive a culture that encourages frank feedback. We can identify the traits that let managers do that well, and even plot individual managers on a maturity curve to understand how well they are — or aren’t — doing it. 

From there, organizations could help managers do better with executive coaching. That’s more a job for HR than compliance, but it would still be vital for your success cultivating a speakup culture. The compliance department might also help with tweaks to policies, compensation plans, disciplinary procedures, or training programs to foster a better speakup culture, too. 

The exact details of this will vary from one company to the next, and even one CEO to the next. The correlation between leadership and a strong speakup culture, and how that correlation exists on a spectrum — that’s the important principle here. Trump and his antics about Hurricane Dorian just underline the point. 

With a Sharpie.

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