Several centuries ago, during the Revolutionary War, a group of soldiers were trying to move a heavy piece of lumber that was blocking the road. As hard as they tried, over and over again, they couldn’t seem to move it from the ground. Their corporal stood nearby giving them direction and probably graciously allowing them a brief period of rest. He may have even sought their input on “how” to best move the huge piece of wood. But after their repeated efforts, his patience was wearing thin.
Another more senior army officer came along on horseback and observed their efforts. After a moment, he suggested that the corporal help his men. The corporal responded with a tinge of offense in his voice, “Me? Why, I’m a corporal sir!”
The senior officer dismounted his horse and stepped over to the men. He positioned himself alongside them, and gave the order to “heave”. All of a sudden, the timber moved into the position where they needed it, no longer blocking the pathway.
He then turned to the corporal and told him, “The next time you have a piece of timber for your men to move, just call the commander-in-chief.” The officer was George Washington.
Washington’s behavior modeled servant leadership. He led by example. He didn’t merely direct others, or solicit their input. He demonstrated his willingness to serve and support them. And as a result the soldiers felt his tangible encouragement of their work; and he understood the challenges of their roles.
There’s a well-known parable about a wealthy CEO who took an extended business trip. He left his company in the hands of his three VPs, and gave each of them a portion of the net assets to manage in his absence. Based on what he knew of their capabilities, he gave the first one, we’ll call her Pat, $50 million. The next one, Chris, was given $20 million, and the last, Joe, was given $10 million. When the CEO returned, he asked for a report of their activities and earnings during his absence. Pat proudly showed him how she had doubled the assets entrusted to her, and now she had $100 million. Chris was pleased as well to show that she now had $40 million. Joe by now realized he had fallen far short of his CEO’s expectations. He was afraid to take a risk in losing his leader’s money, after all he couldn’t afford to pay it back, so he did absolutely nothing with it. Nothing. Joe didn’t even try to increase it, or put it in an interest bearing bank account. You can imagine what the CEO did with Joe after that. He likely didn’t have a job.
Now Pat and Chris could probably tell some interesting stories about their journey to doubling their assets; things they learned along the way both about themselves and their business strategies. They likely had some failures, but they were able to effectively manage through them.
Rut vs. Risk
Joe was afraid to take any type of risk with the valuable resources he had. He simply sat on them. Hopefully he had an idea of a business strategy he could try, something he wanted to do, but unfortunately he didn’t know how to do it or was afraid to take the risk. And by doing nothing, he effectively lost ground.
My husband and I recently realized that we would soon have to repair or replace the circular concrete driveway in
front of our home. We thought it would last a lot longer than this. Instead, after only 14 years, several concrete slabs are sinking; weeds are creeping up in the spaces between them; a large crack is running through one, courtesy of a heavy delivery truck; another slab is scaling; and the snow plows that are a staple of Michigan winters has left scrape marks on other parts.
We never thought this would happen because they look so strong and thick. We could wait another year or two, but the situation will only get worse. What we thought was a solid foundation with high structural integrity, wasn’t resilient enough to withstand a variety of above and below ground pressures. What if the quality or thickness of the concrete had been stronger? What if we had ensured that heavy vehicles didn’t pull into the driveway? What if we carefully used a walking snowplow each winter instead of hiring a heavy truck to plow it (not!). In hindsight it was hard to predict we’d be in this spot, but we now need to look at options to repair or replace all or a part of the driveway.
Fortune 500 Foundation
As I reflected on this disappointing situation, I happened to look at Fortune Magazine’s recently released list of the top 500 global companies. Their total revenue declined for the first time since 2010 by 11.5% to $31.2 trillion, and profits shrank by 11.2% to $1.48 trillion1. Once strong sectors (such as Oil) and other stalwart corporations have stumbled, and are struggling to find their new footing. Companies that placed in the top 100 in the prior year, have now been displaced from the list.
CEOs and individuals in business leadership roles are frequently confronted with the dichotomy of making decisions to ensure the long term health of their companies, while maximizing short term profits. Their management roles compel them to lead the organization as if they are owners, but in reality, these organizations are owned by and at the mercy of investors and customers who determine the value of their products and services.
In a recent survey conducted by Fortune Magazine, 77% of CEOs said it would be easier to manage their companies if they were private¹. This feedback comes in a climate of increasing numbers of activist investors who purchase a significant amount of company stock, then proceed to make recommendations to the board and company leadership on how they should run it to increase value. To be fair, all such suggestions are not bad, and some have led to considerably positive results in the bottom line of these companies. But these CEO owners may find that their company’s mission and purpose are no longer aligned with where others want them to go.
Customers also have a powerful voice in shaping corporate strategies and decisions. Pepsi worked hard over several years to reformulate its diet cola to remove aspartame, thereby meeting the needs of people who wanted to move away from artificial sweeteners. However, many other diehard Diet Pepsi drinkers didn’t like the taste with the sucralose replacement, and complained loudly. So Pepsi recently announced that the old aspartame formula would return to the market, and they will sell both versions to meet the needs of all those customers. Oh, and did I mention that their sales volume slumped more than 10% during one of the quarters that the aspartame formula was off the market?
What disciplines do you practice to make your leadership successful?
Leadership can be learned, but it requires discipline to be effective. It requires identifying and establishing a pattern or system of constructive behaviors, then repeating them, until they become habits that are ingrained into your routine.
Leadership disciplines are controlled behaviors designed to accomplish specific objectives. They are determined based on the individual leader’s personal style and skillsets, their roles and responsibilities, and the culture and needs of the organization where they function in a leadership capacity.
Leadership roles and responsibilities are all relative. The ability to effectively hold a leadership role in a Fortune 100 company, a family owned business, a mid-sized non-profit, city government or as an entrepreneur is different for each person. But the need for discipline is consistent across every setting.
Leadership is establishing a relationship with others, to influence behaviors, to accomplish a goal. Thus leadership discipline is important because no matter the size of the team, everyone is watching and to some degree imitating the leader. And because everyone is watching the leader, it’s important to model the right behaviors. These behaviors are determined by the results the leader wants to accomplish.
Athletes provide a great example of the need for discipline. They come in all shapes and sizes, from little league superstars to multimillion dollar professionals. But each have to learn the disciplines of their respective sport in order to improve their skill level, and to be competitive. There are four key steps to this discipline. Continue reading