UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


Trust, truth telling & accountability are leadership pillars


Bill JohnsonTrying to fit into a job you dislike is like trying to teach a pig to sing, said Bill Johnson (JD ‘82), CEO of Tennessee Valley Authority.

“It won’t work and you won’t like it,” he said.

Johnson spoke at UNC Kenan- Flagler as part of the Dean’s Speaker Series.

Instead, do something you like and don’t work too hard in planning the next step because opportunities unfold when you find a path that inspires you, he advised.

“I used to teach history in a middle school and coach basketball,” Johnson said. “I was trained as a lawyer and I ended up as the accidental CEO.”

Like most CEOs, Johnson said he reached his position through a combination of several things: luck, a lot of perseverance but for the most part, the work of others.

Leaders should focus on relationships with others and their own motives for success, he said. “We’ve gotten confused about achievement and success. We’ve gotten confused about value and values. … We’ve gotten comfortable with the idea of the end of success justifies the means of the human toll it takes to get there.”

“Try not to become a man of success, but a man of values,” he said, quoting Albert Einstein.

Change provides wonderful leadership opportunities, he said. “Change is a time of opportunity for those who step forward as leaders and mobilize the discretionary of others to excel.”

Johnson shared his “pillars of effective of leadership.”

Trust: “Most people don’t feel confident about change unless they have trust and confidence in their leaders,” he said. Every action and interaction serves a purpose in that it either builds trust or erodes it, he said. “In interpersonal space with a subordinate, an employee or anyone really, there is no neutral ground. There is no casual encounter.”

Truth telling: When he first became CEO of TVA, he learned that it was losing revenue and spending more than it could to break even, which is the company’s objective. He knew that TVA had to undergo massive change so he was truthful with his employees about the situation and the process for addressing it.

Accountability: Effective accountability requires leaders to recognize they are accountable for themselves as well as everyone that they are leading. “As leaders, we’re accountable for the behaviors we use and the results they produce. We’re accountable for the choices we make and the consequences of those choices,” Johnson said. “An effective leader understands that his or her influence is most effective when it’s used to serve and motivate others, not to serve one’s self.”

To view Johnson’s full address and other Dean’s Speakers, visit http://www.kenan-flagler.unc.edu/news/speaker-videos.