Sending a Strong Message: Protecting Your Employees

In 1985, a film company facing financial pressure hired a new president. In an effort to cut costs, the president asked the two leaders of a division, Ed and Alvy, to conduct layoffs. Ed and Alvy resisted—eliminating employees would dilute the company’s value. The president issued an ultimatum: a list of names was due to him at nine o’clock the next morning.

When the president received … [ Read more ]

What Should Be True

Some organizations and initiatives are so successful that a sort of folklore arises around them. John F. Kennedy is said to have asked a janitor scrubbing a floor at Cape Canaveral what he was doing and received the reply, “I’m working to put a man on the moon.” The story is probably apocryphal, as it’s also been attributed to architect Christopher Wren at St. Paul’s … [ Read more ]

The Best Bosses Shield those Who Work for Them

Annette Kyle managed some 60 employees at a Texas terminal where they loaded chemicals from railcars onto ships and trucks. In the mid-1990s, Annette led a “revolution” that dramatically raised her unit’s performance through a host of changes, including better planning, greater responsibility at the lowest levels, improved and more transparent metrics, and numerous cultural changes. She personally sewed “no whining” patches on workers’ uniforms, … [ Read more ]

Being Open to New Ideas

Rosabeth Moss Kanter tells a great story about an executive at a fabric manufacturer who took over a group and demonstrated that he was open to any new ideas. Someone from the production line approached the executive and, in a heavy foreign accent, said he had an idea that might solve a problem that had long bedeviled the company: An important type of fiber would … [ Read more ]

All the Balls are Red

In 1975, the CEO of pharmaceutical giant Johnson&Johnson presented his executive team with exactly those challenges. He sent the team on a two-day retreat to discuss the founding document of their company, the J&J Credo, which had hung unheeded and yellowing on company walls for decades after it was penned by the company’s founder. The Credo outlines the company’s specific … [ Read more ]

An Outsider’s Point of View

You don’t necessarily need an outsider to provide an outside perspective, however. Occasionally a creative, clear-headed insider can break free of both his company’s and his own preconceptions by adopting a novel point of view.

This was demonstrated by Andy Grove in 1985, when he and his boss, Gordon Moore, were fighting what appeared to be a losing battle against an impossible business dilemma. In … [ Read more ]

When you look at me, what do you see?

A fable from the East tells of an emperor and a zen monk who came face to face for the first time. The emperor ruled over a kingdom that practiced Buddhism and the monk was eager to meet with him, looking forward to sharing tales of enlightenment.

But when they met, the emperor decided to test the monk by saying to him: “When you look at … [ Read more ]

What determines the strength of a wheel?

An ancient Chinese story, retold by Phil Jackson, coach of the phenomenally successful Chicago Bulls basketball team, makes this point rather more emphatically. In the 3rd century BC, the Chinese emperor Liu Bang celebrated his consolidation of China with a banquet, where he sat surrounded by his nobles and military and political experts. Since Liu Bang was neither noble by birth nor an expert in … [ Read more ]

The Example of the Iowa Gambling Task

The field of neuroscience has been especially helpful in expanding our understanding of the role of emotions in decision-making. Research shows that while emotions are essential for decision-making, they can also lead us far astray in ways we may not anticipate. Antonio Damasio, one of the world’s leading researchers in neuroscience, helped design a seminal experiment that assessed the role of emotions in decision-making. It … [ Read more ]

Do you have your client’s best interests at heart?

In 1959, Play of the Week, an icon of civilization on television, was at risk of being canceled. Broadcast on Channel 13, New York’s public television station, the show offered high-quality theater week after week — including works by such writers as Eugene O’Neill, John Steinbeck, and Jean-Paul Sartre, with top talent. But the ratings were low, and sponsors were dropping out.

Ogilvy was looking for … [ Read more ]

Knowing Your Customers

In the 1930s, when I first knew the automotive industry, Alfred Sloan, who ran General Motors, would disappear from Detroit once every six weeks. Next morning he would walk into a dealership in Cincinnati or Kansas City and say, “I am Mr. Sloan from Detroit. Would you allow me to work for two days as your assistant service manager?” When he left, customers always said, … [ Read more ]

Don’t let self limitations hold you back

The first [leadership lesson] I learned in the jungles of Bangalore, at an elephant camp. When you visit such a camp you see these gigantic elephants tethered with a small stake. I asked the trainer: ‘Why do they stay tethered when they could so easily pull up the stake?’ He told me: ‘Well, the elephant is tethered as a small calf; when it tries to … [ Read more ]

True leadership comes from who the person is

One of my most recent illustrations of leadership is an executive I know who was invited to a black-tie dinner in another city. Instead of taking her husband as escort, she took her 11-year-old son. I can only begin to describe how this simple act affected senior executives in a client firm with whom she was in the early stages of establishing a relationship. They … [ Read more ]

Be Careful What You Say When You’re the Leader

John DeLorean told me that shortly after he had become general manager of Chevrolet he attended a sales conference in Dallas, and when he arrived at his hotel suite he discovered that someone from the company had delivered a huge basket of fruit to his room. Remarking to an associate on the basket’s size and variety he commented, humorously, he thought, “What? No bananas?”

From … [ Read more ]

Emphasizing the Positive

In 1982, University of Wisconsin researchers who were conducting a study of the adult-learning process videotaped two bowling teams during several games. The members of each team then studied their efforts on video to improve their skills. But the two videos had been edited differently. One team received a video showing only its mistakes; the other team’s video, by contrast, showed only the good performances. … [ Read more ]

You never really know someone until you see the choices she makes.

Like many photographers before him, Richard Zaltman was visiting remote areas of the world to capture images of people living lives far removed from those in the United States.

Here’s what made his experience different.

One morning, while walking through an isolated village in Bhutan, he suddenly got the idea of turning his camera over to the locals to see what they would consider significant enough to … [ Read more ]

W.L. Gore’s vision of “Freedom”

At W.L. Gore, with its vision of “Freedom,” the decision-rights of associates (as all members of the organization are called) are determined by the “water-line” principle. Employees envision their enterprise as a ship on which they all sail together. If someone occasionally bores an accidental hole above the ship’s waterline, it’s not calamitous; after all, innovative organizations must make allowances for some mistakes. A hole … [ Read more ]

People Live Up or Down to a Leader’s Expectations

“Tell me about the people at the organization you just left,” said the senior manager who was screening candidates to fill a key leadership role. “They were uneducated and lazy,” the candidate responded. “You always had to keep an eye on them because they were constantly trying to goof off or rip off the company. They were lousy communicators, resisted change, and only cared about … [ Read more ]