The vast majority of professionals will never rise to the heights of leading a major corporation. But because of the public nature of executives and the companies they oversee, business leaders and their management methods often form effective case studies for those who manage smaller projects and organizations.
Over time, professionals who make a habit of reading trade journals and analyzing business reports can begin spotting both the useful and the futile patterns among these executives’ leadership styles. One such pattern, coined by the bestselling author of “Good to Great” Jim Collins, is called “The Window and the Mirror”.1
In a 2018 article detailing the presentation Toys R Us chief executive, David Brandon gave his senior staff about the company’s downfall, Brandon is quoted as saying,
“The vendors who at times have been less than cooperative, customers who in some cases have not been as supportive as we wish they had been … and certainly members of the media, who have had a great time using us as their whipping post over the last few months, I believe that all of them will live to regret what is happening to our company.”2
Few people understand the significance or magnitude of the external forces executives like Brandon navigate every day. In addition to the challenges a complex supply chain, diverse customer base and biased media present to a multinational corporations, shifting consumer preferences, regulatory issues, and a multitude of other factors also become stumbling blocks to these behemoths. But like a ship captain who steers his vessel through the waters whether choppy or smooth, the very job of these senior executives is to steer their corporations through these varied business conditions.
Collins would describe this portion of Brandon’s presentation as an executive who is “looking out the window”. Some leaders, as Collins explains in his landmark book, “look out the window for someone or something outside themselves to blame for poor results”3.
Exceptional leaders also look out the window. But they don’t do it to blame external factors when these go wrong, but to bestow credit when their plans succeed.
In an October 2018 interview with Bloomberg News, CEO Satya Nadella was discussing Microsoft’s advancements in coupling artificial intelligence with universal design to bring the power of computing to persons with disabilities. In response to the reporter’s question about why he appointed Jenny Lay-Flurrie as Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer, he said,
“She was already leading the accessibility efforts at Microsoft. And in her, I found someone who not only had the patience to teach me why accessibility mattered, but quite frankly to bring about the purpose and energy across the company on what a difference technology can make.”4
Nadella’s expertise in accessibility for disabled persons is widely known and runs very deep both personally and professionally. And as the company’s senior executive, his substantial role in Microsoft’s advancements is undeniable. But exceptional leaders like Nadella seize opportunities to “look out the window” to acknowledge the people or things that played a role in their company’s success.
This “looking out the window” approach to apportioning blame or credit has an antithesis which Collins refers to as “looking in the mirror”. This idiom usually suggests a process of introspection where someone attempts to honestly assess their motives, flaws and struggles. Even Aristotle reportedly discussed this practice when he said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” For outstanding leaders, this process of looking in the mirror is where they learn from mistakes and commit to moving in a new direction.
In February of 2014, General Motors announced an initial recall of 800,000 vehicles suspected of containing defective ignition switches that lacked the mechanical resistance to prevent road vibration from rotating them off. Once the engine was shut off, drivers were no longer protected by the vehicle’s airbag. The recall was eventually expanded to include over 30 million vehicles worldwide. And through the exhaustive investigations by independent agencies, the United States Congress and General Motors itself, 124 fatalities and nearly 300 injuries were tied directly to these faulty switches5. It was time to look in the mirror.
Although she had only been at the helm of General Motors for two months, CEO Mary Barra was called before the House Energy and Commerce Committee of the United States Congress in April of 2014 to explain the decade’s worth of mistakes that led to these horrific tragedies. This initial hearing resulted in more questions than answers, but Barra’s intentions were clear.
“Sitting here today, I cannot tell you why it took so long for a safety defect to be announce for this program, but I will tell you we will find out … While I cannot turn back the clock, as soon as I learned about the problem, we acted without hesitation. We told the world we had a problem that needed fixed. We did so because whatever mistakes were made in the past, we will not shirk from our responsibilities now or in the future. Today’s GM will do the right thing. That begins with my sincere apologies to everyone who has been affected by this recall especially the families and friends that lost their lives or were injured. I am deeply sorry.”6
Even though Barra herself never designed or installed one of these defective switches, she took direct responsibility for this failure and the process leading her organization through the tough work of looking inwardly.
Less developed leaders may also look in the mirror too, but for egotistical reasons – to receive the praise for their organization’s successes. They tend to overestimate the value of their own contribution and underestimate the contributions of their subordinates and external factors. This egotistical “credit grabbing” extends to leaders and followers alike. From the group projects in high school to major undertakings in the workplace, most people have encountered bosses and colleagues who were more interested in having their name attached to a successful mission than in doing the hard work of making that success a reality.
As Collins tersely explains, great leaders, “look out the window to apportion credit to factors outside themselves when things go well … and look in the mirror to apportion responsibility.”7 When less experienced leaders follow this same window/mirror model, they build credibility with their subordinates, colleagues and those higher up the organizational ladder.
1. Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. New York, NY: HarperCollins. Page 34.
2. Verdon, J. (2018, March 16). How Toys R Us chief Dave Brandon broke the bad news to employees. Retrieved October 28, 2018, from https://www.northjersey.com/story/money/2018/03/16/how-toys-r-us-chief-dave-brandon-broke-bad-news-employees/430672002/
3. Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. New York, NY: HarperCollins. Page 35.
4. Bloomberg (2018, October 15). Microsoft CEO Nadella Says AI Can Help a Billion People With Disabilities [Video File] Retrieved October 28, 2018, from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/videos/2018-10-15/microsoft-ceo-nadella-says-ai-can-help-a-billion-people-with-disabilities-video . :14.
5. Shepardson, D. (2015, August 24). GM compensation fund completes review with 124 deaths. Retrieved October 28, 2018, from https://www.detroitnews.com/story/business/autos/general-motors/2015/08/24/gm-ignition-fund-completes-review/32287697/
6. C-SPAN (2014, April 1). General Motors Ignition Switch Recall [Video File] Retrieved October 28, 2018, from https://www.c-span.org/video/?318608-1/gm-ignition-switch-recall . 23:56.
7. Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. New York, NY: HarperCollins. Page 35.
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