Who knew, compliance officers, that we could spend Thanksgiving weekend musing over yet another example of tone-deaf leadership and the damage it can do to corporate culture? Yet we can do precisely that thanks to Michael Hancock, mayor of Denver.
Those of you in Colorado may already know the story. Hancock, like every other sensible leader in the United States, spent the first part of this week warning people not to travel for Thanksgiving due to the risk of covid.
“Pass the potatoes, not covid,” Hancock tweeted on Wednesday morning. “Avoid travel if you can.” It was sensible advice: Denver is seeing record levels of coronavirus right now.
Then Hancock boarded a flight to Houston and then onward to Mississippi. He was traveling to spend Thanksgiving with his wife and daughter, who were already there. Of course news of Hancock’s trip became public, and of course everyone rightly ripped him a new one for the hypocrisy of his actions.
Sigh. Here we go again.
Even worse, Hancock is only one of several state and local leaders caught lately telling the public to take precautions while they personally disregarded those same rules. California Gov. Gavin Newsom was busted last week attending a swanky party in California, not a mask anywhere in sight. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had to cancel plans to bring his mother and two daughters to visit him in Albany, since he’d been hectoring New Yorkers to avoid family gatherings.
All Democrats, of course. At least Republicans are logically consistent and just deny that covid is dangerous.
Examples of executive hypocrisy always fascinate me because they fascinate everyone else. People flock to stories like this; they stoke our outrage and let us feel either morally superior, smugly cynical, or both.
So that must mean examples of executive hypocrisy tell us something important about fostering an ethical culture. What, exactly?
How Leaders Rationalize Misconduct
Let’s start with a close look at how Hancock apologized to the people of Denver. Once news of his travel became public, he said this:
I recognize that my decision has disappointed many who believe it would have been better to spend Thanksgiving alone. As a public official whose conduct is rightly scrutinized for the message it sends to others, I apologize to the residents of Denver who see my decision as conflicting with the guidance to stay at home for all but essential travel. I made my decision as a husband and father, and for those who are angry and disappointed, I humbly ask you to forgive decisions that are borne of my heart and not my head.
Do you see what he did there? Hancock defined two roles for himself: his professional role as leader of the people of Denver; and his private role as a husband and father who wanted to spend time with his family.
The dividing line between those two roles became the fault line Hancock needed to rationalize his decision. That’s how people talk themselves into taking actions they know are wrong.
It’s not that Hancock told himself, “As a husband and father, these rules I’m placing on others don’t apply to me.” The rationalization is more like, “As a husband and father, I have this other, competing set of interests in conflict with the rules I’m placing on others.”
Then the conflict turns into a contest of resolve versus temptation, complicated by the shame of confessing this conflict to others — and from there, the rationalization can easily be made. “I don’t want to make the bad choice, but this competing interest is tempting me, and I’m too embarrassed to admit that desire to others. So I’ll do it and hope that nobody notices.”
Anti-fraud specialists know this dynamic well. Rationalization is a crucial part of the Fraud Triangle. It’s how people convince themselves that an act they know is bad really isn’t that bad — that it’s harmless, or can be remedied later, or whatever. So I can give myself permission to do the bad thing, right?
Identifying two roles for yourself is crucial to that thought process, flawed as it may be. Hancock defined his professional role as the leader, and the leader did his duty: he warned people not to travel. Then he switched to his personal role as a family man with other considerations, and in that role the rationalization became much easier to make.
So why do the rest of us respond to these acts of executive hypocrisy so viscerally?
Leadership Occupies One Place
To answer that question, we can start with one of Hancock’s critics. Colorado state Rep. Kyle Mullica, who works as an emergency room nurse, said this on Wednesday afternoon:
Let’s be clear. As elected officials we are leaders in our community. People look to us for guidance. Perfection is impossible, but as leaders we should always be striving to lead by example. @MayorHancock decision impacts all of us trying to do the right thing.#copolitics #coleg
— Rep. Kyle Mullica (@Kyle_Mullica) November 25, 2020
The point in Mullica’s tweet is that people tend not to see their leaders existing in two separate roles. We see leaders — especially political leaders, but business executives as well — occupying one role: the figure guiding us on how to act as we go through our work and our lives.
That has important implications for the damage a leader can cause when he (or she) fails to live up to expectations for good conduct that the leader himself has defined.
If people perceive the CEO as an uncompromising figure, we mirror that back to the CEO when he or she has an ethical failure. That’s especially true when the CEO tries to rationalize his or her actions with that “two roles” dynamic I defined above: we see that the CEO says one thing to us, but has a secret personal role where the rules don’t apply. So why should we care about the rules either?
There’s a wiser strategy CEOs could employ in their leadership. They can define themselves as humans just like the rest of us: clear on our goals and moral values, but sometimes flawed in our struggle to achieve them. (Mullica even specifically notes, “Perfection is impossible.”)
That reduces the risk that the rest of us will see a CEO who says one thing about ethics in public but follows another path in private. It increases the chance that we’ll see a CEO who aims for high standards but occasionally misses, just like the rest of us.
Why is that important? Because in the first instance, we receive the message that ethical conduct can be discarded. In the second, we receive the message that ethics is always important, even if the CEO him- or herself sometimes fails to meet those standards. The latter is how you make an ethical culture endure even through something as damaging as a CEO failure.
What does that leadership look like in practice? I’m a big fan of business guru Jim Collins’ writings on the subject in Good to Great, his seminal work on corporate success. Collins defines five levels of leadership, and a Level 5 leader is what we’re talking about here. Someone who stresses the corporate mission more than his or her own role in achieving that mission. Someone with humility and self-awareness. As Collins put it:
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.
Will Level 5 leaders always avoid leadership mistakes like what Mayor Hancock did? Of course not. But they build a more durable corporate culture, including goals of ethical conduct — a culture that can hold together even when the CEO him- or herself screws up.