The title of Chief Executive Officer commonly conjures up images of a sharply dressed, smooth-talking individual who paints an inspiring, mesmerizing picture of their company in images and words. But it is underneath this veiled exterior that an organization’s real story lives.
When the Volkswagen scandal broke, my first thought went to the leaders of the company. Of course, there is the obvious question: Did former CEO Martin Winterkorn and Volkswagen America CEO Michael Horn know about the cheating (both have denied this)? But for me, a leadership scholar, the fiasco raises much more interesting questions about Winterkorn and Horn’s leadership styles: Did the CEO image or illusion they projected blind them from the realities of their own business? Did they perpetuate a culture where employees were fearful of sharing problems with those at the top? Though we may never know how much knowledge these leaders had prior to the public exposé, it is a compelling case of what can happen when leaders become too focused on an image of perfection. Rather than trying to conform to a pre-cast mold, I believe leaders should abandon their bogus two-dimensional views of leadership.