The week@work Leadership lessons from Pope Francis, John Boehner and Martin Winterkorn

During this week@work three leaders representing the religious, legislative and corporate sectors, demonstrated their leadership strengths and weaknesses on the global stage.

Pope Francis on a visit to the United States, challenged national and world leaders to take the lead on major global issues. One of those leaders, John Boehner, internalized the advice and resigned his position as Speaker of the House and Member of Congress the following day. At the same time as the Pope was demanding action on the environment, Martin Winterkorn, the CEO of Volkswagen resigned as his company became the latest example of corporate fraud at the expense of ‘our home’.

On Friday, Pope Francis addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations urging world leaders to provide the essential minimum: lodging, labor and land as well as education, religious freedom and civil rights. It was his use of a quote from the poem, ‘El Gaucho Martin Fierro’ which could be easily applied to the competitive atmosphere of corporate life.

“…government leaders must do everything possible to ensure that all can have the minimum spiritual and material means needed to live in dignity and to create and support a family, which is the primary cell of any social development. In practical terms, this absolute minimum has three names: lodging, labor, and land; and one spiritual name: spiritual freedom, which includes religious freedom, the right to education and other civil rights.”

“War is the negation of all rights and a dramatic assault on the environment. If we want true integral human development for all, we must work tirelessly to avoid war between nations and between peoples.”

El Gaucho Martín Fierro, a classic of literature in my native land, says: “Brothers should stand by each other, because this is the first law; keep a true bond between you always, at every time – because if you fight among yourselves, you’ll be devoured by those outside”.

The Pope once again communicated the urgency to protect the environment. “Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity.” Simultaneously, the global story of Volkswagen violating emission standards by using sophisticated software in diesel models to ‘trick’ environmental testing was made public.

“In 2012, a group of researchers at West Virginia University won a $50,000 grant from the International Council on Clean Transportation to do performance testing on clean diesel cars. Arvind Thiruvengadam, a research assistant professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering, told NPR this week that the team was merely excited do the research—which involved driving the clean diesel cars outside the lab—and write a journal paper based on the data. They never expected that they would discover one of the biggest frauds in automotive history.

When Thiruvengadam and his colleagues tested Volkswagen’s clean diesel cars, they found discrepancies up to 35 times the expected emissions levels. The researchers suspected cheating, but couldn’t be sure. David Carder, another researcher on the West Virginia University team, told Reuters that the fallout at hand is surprising because this data was made public over a year and a half ago.”

Are you following this? In 2012 – that’s three years ago – academics accidentally discovered one of the biggest frauds in automotive history. And yet, in those three years, the CEO of Volkswagen, Martin Winterkorn maintains he didn’t have a clue.

“I am shocked by the events of the past few days. Above all, I am stunned that misconduct on such a scale was possible in the Volkswagen Group.

As CEO I accept responsibility for the irregularities that have been found in diesel engines and have therefore requested the Supervisory Board to agree on terminating my function as CEO of the Volkswagen Group. I am doing this in the interests of the company even though I am not aware of any wrong doing on my part.

Volkswagen needs a fresh start – also in terms of personnel. I am clearing the way for this fresh start with my resignation. I have always been driven by my desire to serve this company, especially our customers and employees. Volkswagen has been, is and will always be my life.”

Leading by resignation. Nice try. It’s the culture that defines behavior and that’s set at the top. Whatever the vision Mr. Winterkorn communicated to shareholders, the means to the end derailed the company and the reputation of a respected brand. His accountability ended with an exit. Not the best lesson in corporate governance.

On Friday morning, as the Pope was about to address the United Nations, word leaked that the Republican Speaker of the House of Representative, John Boehner was resigning.

“My first job as speaker is to protect the institution,” Mr. Boehner said. “It had become clear to me that this prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable harm to the institution.”

Here is the perfect example of ‘fighting among yourselves to the advantage of your outside adversaries’. Apparently moderate, constructive, cooperation is not valued in the legislative branch of the U.S. government. When the folks at the extremes have the ability to create distraction and avoid the real work in their job description, is it the role of a leader to step aside to protect the institution?

What are the leadership lessons of this week@work? If you follow the lead of Pope Francis and are a bit more humble, listen to your constituency and lead by example you get it. If you are not paying attention, you will end up with a legacy of scandal. In the end, no matter how hard you try to lead, when values disconnect, it’s time to go.

The topic of leadership was also in the air with the publication of the Inc. magazine annual survey of executives in the fastest growing private companies, ‘Inc. 500 CEOs are more concerned with managing growth than with politics

“Which attribute is most accurate in describing your success? See opportunities – 40%, Persistence – 38%, Leadership ability – 10%, Salesmanship – 4% and Understand basic business principles – 8%.”

Seventy percent are in favor of raising the minimum wage.”

These CEOs are almost unanimous in their positive view of economic opportunity, but still struggle with leadership skills. Among the shortcomings: patience, the ability to communicate consistently, and manage well.

I think it’s safe to say that we will not be Pope. And most of us will not sit in the C Suite or behind the President during the State of the Union Address. But in our corner of influence, we can demonstrate the traits of a strong leader: humility, empathy, confidence, consistent communication, integrity, and fairness. And bonus points if you are a leader who can employ a quote from 19th century literature to make your point.

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