Suck it up: How leaders succeed

Flickr user Victor1558

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY General Motors (GM) CEO Dan Akerson recently told The New York Times that the automaker's derisive moniker, "Government Motors," continues to hurt sales.

Citing an industry survey last quarter of 30,000 car shoppers, the NYT reported that 32 percent of respondents who opted against buying a GM vehicle did so because of the company's federal bailout. That's an improvement over 2009, when 59 percent of surveyed shoppers rejected GM vehicles, but it still represents a problem for the company.

Akerson is GM's third CEO while the auto giant operates under federal oversight, and he is still wrestling with the company's past issues. Federal ownership limits executive compensation at GM, which affects its ability to recruit what it perceives to be top talent. 

Akerson also sees GM as "a political football" in an election year. The government is unlikely to loosen its grip on GM until the company's stock price rises; otherwise, U.S. taxpayers would be in for a loss on the bailout. Still, that control irks Akerson. "I try not to let it bother me. But the fact is it does bother me," told the NYT's Bill Vlasic.

As David Whiston of Morningstar, an investment firm, told the Times: "It's important for people to realize that [GM is] not done transforming themselves. It is going to take more time to right the ship." How GM is addressing this transformation is Akerson's job, and it is what he should focus on with his public comments.

Or in other words, senior leaders cannot be seen as whiners. They may raise concerns about their organization's public challenges, but if they are seen as grumblers that makes them seem less leader-like. That attitude also effectively licenses others within the organization to moan. This kind of negative thinking can be pervasive and gradually spiral in ways that damage morale.

I much prefer the example of a CEO who owns up to issues and seeks to improve them. Take David Cote, who became CEO of Honeywell (HON) in 2002 when the firm was still trying to find itself after being acquired by Allied Signal.

According to The Economist, Cote focused on a dozen "behaviors" he wanted the company to change. Collectively, these behaviors -- focus on customer, advocacy for change, and self-awareness -- were called "One Hon." That philosophy, coupled with a focus on four lines of business, has since enabled Honeywell to prosper. Its share price is close to its all time-high. As Cote puts it, "You have to get to the point where people say, 'This is how I do my job now.' " And that starts with the CEO owning up to the issues.

Leadership is a matter of personal responsibility. As much as leadership relies on others to be implemented, it starts with the individual. The leader is accountable for his or her own actions, and that includes public behavior. When faced with adversity, acknowledge the challenge. Skip the "pity party" act and focus on what you are doing to resolve the situation.

CEOs that suck it up are leaders who people want to follow. Leaders who wallow in their misery are the ones people are best avoiding.

Image from Flickr user Victor1558