Diving to New Depths As A Leader

I like a quote an entrepreneur friend recently used to describe why he was investing so heavily in employees to improve their work experience -

What We Do in Life Echoes in Eternity.

What you create in business or your personal life continues to vibrate out, in small or big ways.

One of my favorite writers, David Brooks, said in a speech at the Aspen Ideas Festival in July, that to build a powerful impact on people, leaders will be more effective if they pursue the development of moral depth.  That’s a bold statement coming from a New York Times columnist.  What does Brooks mean by this and how does it apply to increasing the impact you can have on others as a leader? 

Brooks says we live out two competing value sets, which he refers to as “resume values” and “eulogy values.”  Resume values are centered around achievement, winning, competing, getting high marks, and being at the top of the class.  Eulogy values are what friends and family will voice at your funeral.  For instance, when my dad past away at 90 years of age, we all sat around the family room after the funeral and reminisced on great sayings from dad.   The themes were love, sacrifice, perseverance through suffering, a “never give up” spirit, dedication to family, and integrity in all things.  For dad, integrity meant that any time you make a choice to compromise what you know is right, even if it doesn’t hurt anyone else, you diminish your soul.  (Now that is a deep thought worth pondering.)   

Eulogy values vector at a different plain than achievement values, and if underdeveloped or compartmentalized between work and family, they leave a leader stranded in the shallows of moral character. We all have met the stranded leaders.  Work is ALL about winning, it’s all about achieving, and it’s all about dominating.  Certainly resume values are important and critical for a life well lived, but if that’s your core focus, it leaves a hollow feeling in the connection with others.  People with moral depth can feel the lack of heart or “soulishness.”  It just feels shallow.

The best leaders I have met are the leaders who integrate resume values and eulogy values first within themselves and then within their company culture.  They are comfortable talking about love and humility and also being aggressive and willing to fight hard when necessary for what is right.  Service to others who are vulnerable or who need assistance is a given.  Respect and careful listening to each and every person, no matter where they sit in the organization, is a given.  The leader understands the value of each “touch point” with a person and how that “touch point” will shape the company’s culture for the better or the worse.  These leaders are passionate about doing great things and being great people at the same time.  It’s a both/and proposition.  For them, there is no other choice but to pursue relentlessly a depth of moral character, and as a result, build a powerful voice that echoes into the future.  It’s not corny, it’s not ethereal.  In fact, it’s the most practical and most basic step a person can take to becoming not just a successful leader, but a great leader.

Questions for a team discussion -

1. What would you say are the three most important eulogy values you aspire to? 

2.  How do you as a leader integrate these three values into the workplace? 

3.  What one character quality of the eulogy values do you want to develop more of? 

The Power of Story

“Our company was losing value, and customers were turning away from us.  We had lost the power of our story.  We started as a brand committed to not only making great coffee but creating a great customer experience in an environment of committed employees.”  Howard Schultz, CEO Starbucks.

Mr. Schultz understood the importance of narrative in turning around his company.  He did not say we had lost the focus on our bottom line profits, or the taste of our coffee, or the style of our stores.  He said they had lost the narrative and it had to be saved or Starbucks was going to crash.  To his credit, he resurrected the story and the stock has followed suit. 

Every individual, company, neighborhood, institution, and nation has a story - a narrative that is being lived out - for good or bad.  Your narrative embodies the myths, conflicts, and emotions of the primary forces that are at work in making your story positive, negative, or just blah. 

For instance, as a country, what is the central narrative that embodies America?  Our core narrative is found in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”  And while the Declaration was the tip of the iceberg, our national narrative beneath it’s surface has been shaped over the last two and a half centuries. Great political leaders understand that whoever can craft the most compelling story for the American people is the party who wins the next election.  It’s not about rational arguments supported by lots of data. It’s about capturing the imagination of voters.  Just as it goes for nations, so it goes for companies.  Howard Schultz knew he had lost control of the Starbuck’s narrative and he had to win back the hearts of the customer.    

So let me ask you this: What is the narrative of your company or your non-profit?  What is the story you tell that resonates with purpose, meaning, and connection with your customers, your suppliers, and shareholders?  If it’s a war metaphor - defeat the other guy by being top dog in your industry - your narrative will have little traction with your customers, but will appeal to highly competitive people inside your organization.  If your central narrative is about profit - make the most money possible - your narrative makes you the villain with your customer and you will ultimately lose the  connection with your customer base. 

However, if your narrative is centered around meaning, purpose, and inspiration, you are in a great position to develop deeper loyalty with your followers.  In the beginning, Starbucks redefined coffee from being a simple commodity to also being a connector of people - one cup of coffee in one neighborhood at a time. Starbucks designed their products, services, and architecture around this narrative, down to every detail of their store.  Customers experienced what worked and did not work.  They felt which details were in alignment and which were not. When a detail was not in alignment, they let other’s know about it on Yelp.  When Howard Schultz retired, Starbucks started expanding quickly and lost focus. They tried to put stores everywhere. The stores lost their sense of intimacy and coziness. Baristas were not as well trained. Jay Leno joked that Starbucks was building a store in his closet.  So Mr. Schultz recaptured the narrative.  He now talks about each store as nurturing the human spirit through one cup of coffee, one conversation, one place at a time.  He is not into market saturation, but emphasizes the Starbucks narrative so that market growth comes through valuable customer experience. 

As you lead your company, do not overlook the power of your narrative as it is experienced through the eyes of each of your stakeholders.  Your audience wants to know why you are providing them your product or service and why they should care when they deliver that product or service as an employee or supplier.   A great answer to the  question about your narrative assures the customer, employees, and other stakeholders that you are working for more than just the money.  Your vision is much deeper than just being “a model in your industry”, or being “the largest single provider.” 

Each industry has the potential for it’s own unique narrative. In health care, for instance, a positive narrative can be anchored in a passion for health and healing.  You need to find the narrative that differentiates you from everyone else.  At United Stationers, a multi-billion dollar company which distributes office supplies, the narrative is about service to others - helping all of the stakeholders be successful. Their competitors focus more on “lowest price” - thus missing the fact that they are in the service business and must get close to their customer..

So first, develop a deep understanding of the narrative you are creating to differentiate your brand. Your narrative signals who you are — as an individual, a company, or a nation. Your narrative starts with looking back at the past -  the stories, myths, and anecdotes created by you and your company. It progresses to the present as you create relationship with your customers, suppliers, employees, shareholders, and your community.  It continues with the future - way out there - where you can create what you want  people to say and the story they will tell others. The future narrative is best when it embodies the best elements of what you can deliver in the marketplace.

Here’s a helpful exercise.  Write out, “What is the narrative of our company?” Then write out, “What do we want it to be?”  Ask others who admire you what they say about you.  Don’t worry so much about the dissenters.  Start with the admirers. Once you start to get clarity, then ask how you can take your story and express it in every detail on a daily basis in every element of your business. 

As a community of learners, I’d love to see your comments and ideas.

* If you want to learn more about the power of narrative, I recommend you visit the works of both David Altschul and John Hagel.  Both thought leaders have helped to transform, through the power of narrative, some of the biggest brands in America. 

Questions on Leadership

After Luca Luigi Rosi, a London-based journalist, read my Harvard Business Review blog, he wrote to ask me some questions on leadership so he could post them for his readers.  I think his questions and my answers might stimulate your own thinking around the foundational principles of leadership.  Please take a look at the last question and do yourself a quick favour - answer the question yourself.  If you’d like, please post your comment for all of our readers - we can learn together and have some fun.  Thanks!

Luca:  If there’s one lesson to be learned about good leadership, what would it be?
Doug:  Most leadership books are formulaic and miss the key point that what is needed from leaders depends on the situation.  A country in a crisis needs a different type of leader than a country that is growing and reinvesting.  An organization that needs to be turned around needs a different kind of leader than an organization that needs to scale by a factor of ten.  Leadership and it’s behaviors are always determined by context.  The lesson here for a person who aspires to be a leader is to know what you can be great at and find the right context to express your talents.  For instance, I’m best at growth opportunities where the pie is ever expanding.  I’m not great at turn-around situations nor at leading incremental change.  I need to find companies I can help lead who want to grow in a significant way. 

Luca:  The frontline is the bottom line. Do you think leaders are visible enough?
Doug:  Too many leaders are not involved in the gritty encounters where engagement with the customer is realized.  In this age of transparent social networks, leaders are becoming much more aware of how important it is to improve the customer experience at the front lines.  The problem is that many try to solve this problem with complex “customer experience surveys.”  Data is inputted and executives analyze it.  The data from the surveys is certainly helpful but often misses discovering the real opportunities for improvement.  For instance, I can tell you in a survey what I liked or did not like, but I’m not going to suggest a more creative way for your company to handle your overall customer experience process.  The best way for a leader to design innovative improvements is through face-to-face interactions with both real customers and real employees at the front lines. 

Listen to the underlying story being told when you talk with a customer or employee – the narrative that is being woven about your company.  Are you proud of it?  Does the story inspire customers and does it motivate your associates to be their very best for others? Bottom line, there is no substitute for interactive visibility by a leader.   

Luca:  What are the behaviors that leaders should be rewarded for? 
Doug:  Again leadership is determined by context.  However, in general the modern connected economy requires leaders to craft new capacities such as:   

  1. First and foremost, crafting a narrative that speaks to your entire community of involved stakeholders.  If you as a leader can appeal to each constituent’s desire for meaning, purpose, connection, and the feeling that you are building an important community of stakeholders who can make a difference in this world, then you understand not only the power of a pay check, but also the power of your narrative to inspire the best in all of your stakeholders. 
  2. Thinking about your organization in the context of a total system and how the system serves the larger purpose.  Dr. Michael Maccoby, a renowned expert on leadership, refers to this as Strategic Intelligence.
  3. Collaborating across teams and organizations to build synergy toward the common purpose.
  4. Partnering with your broader community of stakeholders, including shareholders, suppliers, and potential joint venture partners.  For instance, Master Card partners with mobile telephone companies to build simple payment systems without a plastic credit card.
  5. Knowing your strengths – surrounding yourself with the best people possible to compliment your strengths.  Do not underestimate the importance of picking great people that compliment your own abilities.

Luca:  Leading by example – your top three takeaways. 

  1. Leaders cast a big arc of sunshine or darkness.  If you want to Lead By Example, you have to Be The Example. Everyone is watching how you behave and they will emulate your actions.  Therefore, always ask, “Is my behavior in this moment something I want others to imitate when I’m not present?”  If you can’t give a big affirmative “yes,” then first change your behavior.
  2. Reinforce behaviors in others that support the culture you want to build.
  3. Put a firm boundary around behaviors you do not want to see in the organization.  The actions you disapprove of are more important than the ones you support.  People will take notice and word travels fast.  

Luca:  What advice would you give me to get ahead in my chosen career?
Doug:  The best advice I can give an emerging leader is to listen to your own personal narrative – what are you most passionate about and how do you want others to describe the contribution you are making in the world?  Ask the question, “What will others say about how I help them change their world?”  Focus on your narrative from the point of view of the contribution you make to others – not about how wealthy or powerful you will be.  Your best bet to get ahead is to do something significant that helps others get ahead.