Hidden Truths: What Leaders Need to Hear But Are Rarely Told

Ziana Kotadia (MBA ’22) talks to Professor David Fubini about his latest book

Ziana Kotadia, Women Leadership Editor

What is your latest book about?

Hidden Truths is my attempt to “pull the curtain back” on what it means to be a leader. Other CEO books are not only biographies but generally also an exploration of the developed theories of leadership. This book is entirely different. I talk about the reality of the day-to-day of being an Executive and the things that you never get told when taking the job. It reflects my 34 years of advising CEOs at McKinsey. I asked the question to many leaders of all types, what do you know now, that you wish you knew when first taking the job. There are 15 chapters; each of which covers an important learning, from arriving to knowing when to leave. I use quotes and case examples to bring it all to life.

How did you conduct the research?

Over my years’ advising, I kept a note of case examples, not knowing what I’d ever do with these anecdotes. I also interviewed a large number of leaders and CEOs, not just of traditional companies, but also of academic institutions and non-profits. I asked these leaders about the advice and counsel they’d give to others, with the benefit of hindsight. I teach Executive Education programs, so I also had the opportunity to talk to leaders through this channel and spend time with them. 

What is the most surprising thing you learned?

I was surprised at how little homework had been done by CEOs on what it actually means to be a leader before they took the role. It was also interesting to learn how lonely being a CEO can be. You’re surrounded by lots of people, but that doesn’t equate to trusted confidants and friends. You’re under intense scrutiny from all sides: from executives, from employees, from your board, and from customers, shareholders, and other stakeholders, so being at the top can be isolating. The intense scrutiny is surprising itself, because of both the immediate intensity as well as the continual unrelenting pressure from this effect over time. 

What do you think it means to be a leader?

There are many attributes that immediately come to mind. The first is “inspiring.” I don’t think you can be a leader if you’re not able to inspire others to rally around a common objective. Secondly, leaders have to be “role models.” They have to model the behavior that they want their organization to replicate, whatever that might be. It’s something we talk about all the time, if you want to change the culture and strategy of an organization, you change its leader. The last is “a sense of humility and being authentic.” All the great leaders I have worked with are incredibly self-aware and always willing to, and do, ask for help. They don’t play the traditional Hollywood version of what it means to be a CEO, the all-seeing and all-knowing leader. 

How might we as MBA students, and hopeful CEOs, use the things you learned?

The book can help you understand how the leaders you’re going to be working for are motivated. You will get a better understanding of the challenges your senior managers face on a day-to-day basis. There are also life lessons here, regardless of whether you aspire to be a CEO, about how to be successful working with others. Lastly, this book uses the experiences of leaders who have gone through a steep, and sometimes painful, learning curve. You can get the benefit of this life wisdom. 

What advice do you have to students hoping to be a future CEO?

Having the aspiration to be the CEO is great, but single-minded. You should think about wanting to be a leader of others, wanting to be someone that brings together different groups of people towards a common aspiration. Sometimes being the CEO is at the expense of others, so it is better to have this mindset. It’s a really demanding job, which is hard to do well, and most people don’t get the chance to do it for very long. The average tenure for a CEO is shortening. If you’re too single-minded, you might miss the opportunity to be a true leader. 

About Professor David G. Fubini 

David G. Fubini is a Senior Lecturer in the Organizational Behavior Unit and co-leader of the Leading Professional Services Firm and Mergers & Acquisitions Programs for Harvard Business School’s Executive Education.  His MBA teaching has concentrated on teaching the Organizational Behavior, Marketing, Leadership & Corporate Accountability, and Ethics required courses. He has also launched a new Elective Curriculum course entitled Leadership Execution and Action Planning. Previously, he was a Senior Director of McKinsey & Company where he worked for over 34 years. He was McKinsey’s Managing Director of the Boston Office, and the past leader of the North American Organization Practice as well as the founder and leader of the Firm’s Worldwide Merger Integration Practice.  During his tenure, David led, and/or had been a member of, every Firm Personnel Committee, as well as a participant in a wide cross-section of McKinsey’s governance forums and committees.

Ziana Kotadia (MBA ’22) is from the UK, and most recently made the move from London to Boston. She loves to travel, learn about new cultures and enjoys eating her way through cities. She loves to cook and is passionate about great food.