If you watch certain financial news shows you'd think that JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon is a genius. Even after a $2 billion dollar loss at his company due to risky, trading "stupidity" (his words), many who have opined on this situation framed the negative news with similar caveats:
"If there is one guy you want at the head of this, it's Jamie Dimon."
Or, "Jamie Dimon is the smartest financial guy out there right now and he'll get this fixed."
This incident is just the latest example of how the current business culture has quietly lowered our expectations of leadership.
The lowering of the bar
There's something to be said about a leader who can self-confidently offer up a "straight talk" version of a mea culpa. Our culture especially likes to identify these kinds of executives as special, because they're not afraid to take it on the chin. And sure enough, Dimon acknowledged that the bank made a "terrible, egregious mistake."
But there's a serious problem when a CEO's self-confidence becomes more important and valuable than a real analysis of his company's competence. The praise Mr. Dimon has received as a straight-talker sheds light on the troubling fact that many people are willing to look past actions and judge CEOs positively if they believe their intentions and information are honest.
Is this because the American public has come to expect leaders to respond with evasiveness, denials, and finger pointing instead of transparency? Is the bar so low that simply admitting a screw-up earns a CEO an A+ for performance?
Look past the salesmanship
Real operational leadership is not about confidence and presentation skills. While those may make executives feel better, that's really just salesmanship.
Disciplined leadership in a company requires deep culture-, people-, and process-building to bring about higher performance. And performance, by the way, should go well beyond profitability and include not just mitigation of risk but also ethical and responsible business standards to which all employees are held. Ethical and responsible business should extend outside of the organization itself and be aligned into places such as supply chains and partnerships.
The new bar
American CEOs need to be seen as vital contributors to their businesses and the society in which they function. They must regain their position as stewards of the public trust. It's time to raise the bar to a place where the baseline for CEOs starts with transparency, honesty, and technical expertise. These qualities should no longer receive praise as "special;" they should be the barrier to entry for any CEO.
In the case of JPMorgan Chase, I'm sure now the debate around banking regulation and what to do next will heat up. It's my belief that we cannot look simply at regulations but must also address the culture of expectations for our business leadership.
As the CEO of my own business, I hope for the sake of business culture that Mr. Dimon doesn't just use words to tell the world that everything is going to be alright. I hope he demonstrates proper operational leadership in order to do the hard work of ensuring that his culture is transparent, ethical, and quick to remove destructive personalities, policies and actions that put the public at risk. If he can set that example, then perhaps we're one step closer to a leadership culture in which responsible actions speak louder than promises or words.