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When Leadership Matters–Throw out the Script

April 25, 2021

We’re used to watching politicians rely on scripts, prepared by their advisors, the people who lurk in the shadows, typically unseen by the public. Teleprompters have become a favourite tool for prominent leaders, notably leaders such as President Obama who was a master of using them. Contrast Obama to his immediate successor, who stumbled reading text from any medium, and who gained notoriety and massive headaches for his aides when he went off script.

The public exerts a collective sigh when it’s subjected to yet another policy announcement from a political leader. It’s not just the idea of here’s more BS emanating from a politician’s mouth, but also the skepticism whether these leaders possess any original thoughts–their coterie of aides and policy advisors have ample spoons with which to spoon-feed their leaders.

Perhaps one notable exception is Canada’s former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in power for a decade. Harper was nothing short of a one-man band of policy generation. In short, Harper had no time for the federal government’s once internationally regarded public service, whose purpose is to provide objective, non-partisan advice to Ministers and the Prime Minister. For Harper, it was my way or the highway, regardless of whether it was in the national best interest.

However, sometimes shit blows backwards when thrown in the wrong direction. Witness, Harper’s scripting during the criminal trial underway for disgraced Senator Mike Duffy, who among other things accepted $90,000 from Harper’s Chief of Staff to pay off his illegal living expenses. Harper’s public statements, prepared by his aides, kept shifting like desert sands as the trial’s disclosures became public.  

We’ve seen this story before in the private sector. Witness the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which began on April 20, 2010 (above photo). British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward (pictured) and others in BP management tried damage control, which spiralled out of control. Rather than being honest up front, the scripting given to Hayward made the situation worse. Initially, Hayward minimized the scope of the oil spill and its impact on the Gulf of Mexico, stating that it would be “…very, very modest” and that it was “…relatively tiny.” Five weeks later Hayward changed his tune, referring to the oil spill as an “environmental catastrophe.”

British Petroleum had paid out at the end of 2020 a whopping $56 billion in fines, compensation and environmental cleanup. 

A different example of bad CEO scripting was Starbucks’ Race Together campaign in March 2015. When shareholders met mid-March, CEO Howard Schultz (above photo) had his presentation ready. The company was ready to start talking about race relations (prompted by numerous police shootings of black American males) and Schultz wasn’t going to be deterred by critics. Baristas were to write “Race Together” on coffee cups as a means to open conversations with customers. Schultz’s opening lines were, “What I’m most proud of is the enduring nature in 40-plus years of our ability to consistently balance profitability and social impact.”

Except Schultz and his PR advisors grossly underestimated the feedback from the public and the media. Starbucks, a company with some 300,000 employees (3,500 at headquarters), got nothing short of lambasted in social media and the mainstream media. The initiative sunk quickly, despite Schultz’s initial attempts to keep it afloat.

These are but two diverse examples of when the heads of companies became trapped in their scripting, not just the physical briefings from aides and advisors but more importantly their mental models. In short, Tony Hayward foolishly tried to cover his butt and minimize the damage from the oil rig’s spill. Howard Schultz, a good man who began working in sales as a teenager in New York City, became overly infatuated with an idea, not taking time to think through its implications.

Doing the right thing, or making a common-sense decision, doesn’t require a script. Effective leaders know intrinsically what needs to be said and done. As much as getting advice from advisors and subordinate managers is important, those in top leadership positions are in those roles because it’s assumed they have acquired the necessary knowledge and wisdom during their careers. Having perspective and the ability to step back to assess an issue or situation is what it’s about in leading organizations.

Toss out the script. JT

There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.

— Steve Ballmer (CEO Microsoft, 2007)

Connect with Jim on Twitter @jlctaggart and LinkedIn

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