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No bull here

Robert Eaton finds leadership in directness

by on
in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers,Office Communication,Workplace Communication

Robert Eaton, the former CEO of Chrysler who succeeded Lee Iacocca in 1993, became c o - c h a i r m a n of the merged DaimlerChrysler in 1998. He recently retired after leading the company to introduce new vehicles and combine forces with Germany’s Daimler-Benz.

As the big cheese for 467,000 employees, Eaton knows what it takes to lead. He prides himself on his direct, cut-to-the-chase communication style.

WS: You spent 29 years at General Motors climbing the ladder before you came to Chrysler. Did you aim for the top from the start?

Eaton: I believe you should take all the responsibility anyone will give you, period. Don’t worry about your position, job title or pay. If you take on more and more responsibility, the rest will soon follow. That’s how I did it.

WS: But isn’t there a danger you’ll get taken advantage of by higher-ups?

Eaton: It really depends on whether you’re a leader or a manager. There’s a big difference, and how you act will affect your career potential. I have two definitions of leadership. The first is someone who can take people where they don’t want to go or where they don’t think they can go. You must strive to bring people further and solve problems together. Second: A leader has to be a change agent. A manager can execute a plan, and that’s fine. But it’s a plan put together by someone else. This manager may need a lot of guidance, too. If you exhibit leadership, then you’re not the kind of person who’s going to be taken advantage of.

WS: How does your leadership manifest itself in your everyday communication style?

Eaton: I try to be as direct as possible. I never have a hidden agenda. If someone asks me a question—like you’re doing now—I try to answer it. People who dodge questions undermine their ability to lead. And that can cause others to lose confidence in their leader.

WS: But I’m asking friendly questions. How about when you’re fielding more critical or even nasty questions?

Eaton: You’ve got to be just as candid. If I were to ignore a tough question or make it into a different question and then give a meaningless answer, people would see through that. It would hurt my credibility.

WS: So how do you handle bad news? Are you ever tempted to shoot the messenger?

Eaton: Just the opposite. Facing up to bad news is critical. I’ve always viewed bad news—from an earnings disappointment to problems with a product—as an opportunity to rally people.

WS: Still, isn’t it tempting to chastise naysayers or blame people who point out problems?

Eaton: When I’m digesting bad news, assigning blame isn’t my first priority. I want to make sure that we’re not glossing over something just to make it seem less threatening. It’s easy to pretend everything’s OK, to hide from unpleasant facts. But the sooner you dig up all the problems, the quicker you can fix them.

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