A couple weeks ago in #LeadershipChat we were talking about CEOs that were more figureheads then real leaders motivating their teams. I made a remark about Leader as a Bobblehead and @CASUDI inspired me to turn this into a post. The nut here is that there are many figurehead CEOs who operate almost like Tiger Woods endorses products. They’re affiliated but don’t exactly get in the trenches to do the hard work of setting the vision and leading the teams into action.

Rather, they’re, well, like a Bobblehead – sitting on a shelf and brought out for showcase tours. Leaving Senior Management to do what they do best. (or not).

So what exactly defines a Bobblehead Leader?
  • A leader who serves as the company figurehead, assuming total credit for this great turnaround (when in reality it takes strong, organized teams of motivated people to execute a successful turnaround)
  • A leader who spouts messages rather than getting into the heart of important matters. They’re not willing to get too concrete in case they’re held accountable.
  • Someone who espouses core values, mission and vision but doesn’t live them.
  • One who’s not curious about what happens on the front lines choosing to isolate themself in the executive tower. The customer is not their priority. Nor their employees. Only the shareholders.
  • A person not willing to surround themself with people smarter than they, preferring yes people vs. professionals who know how to execute.
  • A leader not open to hearing news they don’t want to hear.
  • They make drastic cuts to save money and drive up the stock price that come back to haunt the company later (See Sunbeam in the 90s).
  • Prefers short-term rewards over long-term vision, hoping they’re not around long enough to see things fall apart – focusing more on their payout rather than building a company that gives back to society, empowers employees while still making shareholders happy.
  • Style without substance.

Who do I think is the antithesis of the Bobblehead Leader? Steve Jobs. He’s fanatically passionate about his company and the products. Involved in the total experience and surrounded by a talented team who makes it happen. He’s the glue. Now many would say he’s a pretty tough boss and that Apple may have a hard time finding a suitable successor because he’s SO MUCH a part of it. But look at how he turned a company many wrote off for dead into one that’s now larger than Microsoft. In short, he cares about the success of the company. Not just his paycheck.

And Tony Hsieh. Fanatical about the customer experience at Zappos, he baked service into every aspect of the company inspiring employees and hiring and training for performance – offering $2,000 to new hires to walk away from their job. Yet he faced a skeptical board who considered it a nice experiment, essentially motivating him to sell to Amazon to avoid changing the vision.

How about Lou Gerstner? He turned IBM around when it was floundering without a vision. For awhile big blue had lost its way but he took the time to learn how the company functioned, where the opportunities lied and injected a long-term vision that took several years to fully realize. Now IBM is back stronger than ever with focus and discipline. It’s proof that even large legacy companies can find their groove with a leader that cares at the helm. Who do you think embodies exceptional leadership?

Want to lead with intention and get results? Don’t be a Bobblehead!

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