A pioneer in American leadership studies, leadership ethics, and business ethics, Joanne Ciulla began her distinguished career as a research fellow at Harvard in 1984. Since then she’s authored several books including The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work and three volumes of Leadership at the Crossroads, and over one hundred scholarly articles such as “Educating Moral Business Leaders Without the Fluff and Fuzz” and “Searching for Mandela: The Insights of Biographical Research.” Dr. Ciulla was a founder of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond, and today, she is the Academic Director of the Institute for Ethical Leadership and Professor of Leadership Ethics in the Department of Management and Global Business at Rutgers Business School. Dr. Ciulla has given lectures on ethical leadership all over the world, including at The Aspen Institute and The World Economic Forum.
Dr. Ciulla was kind enough to speak to Creative Life Institute about leadership in a global business environment, the importance of vulnerability and honesty in leadership, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Donald Trump.
Creative Life Institute: With the election of Donald Trump, is it an interesting time for leadership studies?
Joanne Ciulla: It certainly is (laughing). My fields are business ethics and leadership ethics, so I think I’m in a growth industry right now. The man is crazy.
CLI: He definitely lacks emotional intelligence. That’s for sure.
Joanne Ciulla: The problem is a lot more complicated than emotional intelligence. It’s also leader perception. People have this idealized notion of what leaders should be like. And what’s funny about Americans is they actually have a cowboy view on leadership. Their implicit idea of a leader isn’t the kind of person anyone would want to work with. That’s why the Ronald Reagans and George Bushs—the brash, bossy, “I’m the decider” kind of people—score high on leadership rankings in the studies they do at the Kennedy School every year. This perception is always a part of our culture.
But Donald Trump is in a class of his own. His narcissism is off the charts. This is a man with a very serious personality disorder that’s getting acted out in public life. And a lot of people are going along with it because they think he’s going to do his bidding. Paul Ryan is certainly willing to sell his soul as long as Trump will rubber stamp all the legislation they want, but there will be a point where that just won’t be viable anymore. It’ll be very interesting to see how far they can go. Our foreign allies always question his stupid lies, which are easily disputed with verifiable facts, so they’re wondering if they can trust anything the guy says.
Markets hate instability, and this guy isn’t giving any stability at this this point. Initially, Business people thought, “Great—deregulation, lower corporate tax and all of these other good kinds of things,” but I think businesses know that when you have somebody like this and you never know what he’s going to do, it’s not going to end up paying off.
CLI: Do you think it’s going to be just four years of chaos?
Joanne Ciulla: It all depends if he ever actually listens to anybody. In theory if he ever had experienced people in his cabinet, it could calm down. It’s pretty clear though from whom he’s choosing to be in his National Security Council that this isn’t a man who’s willing to listen to experts. And with the people he put around him, and with all his mania and narcissism, what will happen is everyone around him will just start trying to appease him and enable him. No one wants to set him off.
CLI: Would you say that Donald Trump is incapable of being an effective leader because he suffers from psychological disorders?
Joanne Ciulla: Yes. If you look at the traditional social science measures of leaders, he has very low internal locus of control. He’s completely moved by the outside world. In terms of task and relationship orientation, he pretends he’s task oriented, but he’s totally relationship oriented. It affects everything he does. If somebody insults him, it’s a problem. If somebody flatters him, he loves it. So there’s no logical consistency in anything the man does because he’s driven so much by how he feels and how he thinks other people feel about him. His first go to phrase is always, “So and so really likes me.” Or, “I love so-and-so.” That’s how he feels out the whole world. He’s like a small child. Anyone who is mean to him or slights him in the least way, it’s going to be a problem. You just can’t run a country that way. His leadership is so flawed, and then of course, he always puts himself first and the job of the president is the exact opposite. You’re supposed to always put yourself last. We’ve never had a president that didn’t understand this, so we’ve never needed the restrictions that we need now.
CLI: Do you think it’s ethical to work for Trump? Certain business leaders like Elon Musk and Travis Kalanick were heavily criticized for their willingness to be on his business advisory board.
Joanne Ciulla: The Harvard Business Review asked me to write an article about whether or not it was ethical to work for Trump, and my answer is it’s only ethical if your goal is to moderate this guy, influence him to move away from his basic instincts, and see if you can make a difference. Maybe we do want someone like Elon Musk being on his advisory board, but it’s a very tricky thing because if he has no influence whatsoever it puts him in an awkward position that he becomes part of the debacle, because Trump doesn’t seem willing to listen to anybody – Trump used to cut Jim Mattis out of meetings. So, somebody could go in there looking to help, but you begin to look morally complicit in what’s going on. I wouldn’t want to be someone who is a sensible person working for Trump right now.
CLI: You mentioned leadership perception before, and how in America a leader is expected to be a cowboy: decisive. But when I look at leaders like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, they don’t meet the cowboy image. Have the expectations of a corporate leader changed in the past twenty years, and did the tech industry have an influence on that?
Joanne Ciulla: First of all, when you study leadership in a broad sense the variables you look at is “traits” and “context.” Context really matters in leadership. This is the other thing that’s so interesting in this past election is you hear many Trump supporters saying, “We want a businessman in the White House.” But leading a business is a completely different ballgame than leading in politics. When we look at corporate leaders—a corporate leader who only did American deals is in a completely different position than someone like Steve Jobs or other tech industry leaders. First of all, the work is very different, and different work needs to be led in different ways. So, leadership has changed, but it’s changed because the industries have changed, and so, it’s very hard to compare someone who works in manufacturing, which is not a high tech business, with somebody who works with software developers.
There are these businesses on the high-end that have evolved—they have very well educated employees who are doing really complex jobs and are highly desirable workers, so of course everything about the leadership has to change. One of the biggest structural changes you see in that kind of work is you see a shift in emphasis from time to task, meaning that in the old days in corporate America, you work 9 to 5 and maybe you got overtime. You worked on a clock. The kind of work that software developers do now is task oriented, meaning they have work to do, and they do it in segmented periods of time, often in small teams, often unstructured and non-hierarchical because the idea is they have an intellectual task to accomplish. So you have to lead that group of workers in a different way then you would lead industrial workers. Or even service workers to some extent.
CLI: Do you think globalization has affected the expectation and role of the American corporate leader?
Joanne Ciulla: Not at home. I mean, it’s affected them in terms of how they think about their corporate strategy, but in terms of how they manage their own people at home, I don’t think it changes too much. What I think is different and which has always been interesting to me, is how you run an operation in another culture. People have different ideas of what authority is like. I had a student from the Philippines tell me once that when he was working in his country he had an American manager sit down at a lunch table with him, and he and his coworkers were all terrified and thought he was crazy. It just shows how some countries view what is known as “power distance” differently. The Philippines has a big power distance. America has a much narrower one. Countries like Australia have a really narrow one. In Australia they have an idea of leadership called the “tall poppy system,” which means that anybody who tries to act like they’re better than other people get shot down. Because everyone’s affect is very egalitarian, in Australia, if you’re the CEO, it’s taken very seriously that you cannot act like a big shot. They really frown upon that. So the way a lot of American CEOs act, being in their fancy dining room, would be unacceptable there.
So that is something that globalization has brought—it’s taught us that there is more of a growing division here between the 1% and everyone else, between employers and employees. Other places are far more egalitarian. If I go to Scandinavia, they are much more egalitarian. CEOs behave much differently towards their employees, much more on the same level whereas in this country they’ve become like aristocrats.
CLI: Which is still another version of the cowboy.
Joanne Ciulla: Right—and the only reason why we put up with it, in a country that is supposed to be egalitarian, is because people think they can reach that level. They aspire for that. That’s what’s going on with Trump’s followers. They think he’s their savior.
CLI: Those jobs aren’t coming back.
Joanne Ciulla: There’s no way those jobs are coming back, and if they do, they are hiring robotics to do them.
CLI: You were comparing the American, aristocratic CEO with the more egalitarian CEO in Australia and Scandinavia. What do you think works better? What’s a more effective leadership approach?
Joanne Ciulla: I think the farther away you are from your employees, the more likely you are to not be able to get the kind of input you need to run a company well. If you’re really far away from everybody and the ordinary worker can’t talk to you or you don’t see them working or know what’s going on, you lose a sense of what actually is going on on the ground in your company. I remember observing this in doing case studies at Harvard. We go into a company and the manager will say how close they are to employees blah blah blah, and then he would take me down on the shop floor, and it was clear he didn’t walk around there very much because everybody looked surprised to see him. In Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence they discussed this: management by walking around. I always thought that was one of the smartest things they said because you do need to know what’s going on because your workers actually have a better insight into how to make work better or how to avoid problems than sometimes senior management. Without that input, that feel for things, just in terms of every day management, it’s hard to deal with it. I would never diminish the fact that these guys work really hard, but if you fragment that from what workers actually do, I’m not sure you’re best serving your company.
CLI: Do you think a corporate leader can show vulnerability, be honest in difficult moments for the company, be authentic, etc, as opposed to having to always show strength, and be the cowboy people expect?
Joanne Ciulla: I think they always have to project a feeling of strength for a variety of reasons to outside constituents, but to strategically know when to be vulnerable, I think is important, because there’s a time, if they were vulnerable, and they were genuinely vulnerable at that time, and they were honest with the employees, they’re very likely to get quite a bit of goodwill back from their employees because basically they’re communicating the fact that we are all in this together. Many years ago I wrote a case called “Building Trust at Warner Gear.” I went to this gear factory that was one of the most contentious UAW factories around in Muncie, Indiana. They decided they needed to do something different because they were having labor actions every day. So they started having participatory work in teams and all sorts of other kinds of things and started taking a lot of input from employees on how to save on scrap and other ideas, and they started saving money. The main thing they did, though, was they started sharing the financials with the employees, which you don’t usually do because of union negotiations. Once people understood the financials, it was very interesting because they had this enormous turn around. Productivity was up. Absentee rates were down. It was pretty extraordinary what happened in this company. It was a great example of what happens when you decide to treat everybody like adults. In American history often workers aren’t treated like adults, and that’s what they want. And one way to treat people like adults is to be open and honest about the company’s situation.
CLI: In what other ways can leaders build trust?
Joanne Ciulla: Keeping promises, staying honest, sharing information, having clear communication, doing follow up. Real actions. Trust is not just talking to people, as much as it is taking actions so people see palpable, real things going on.
CLI: Trust is an action.
Joanne Ciulla: It is. And you know what else never goes out of style? Being fair.