Steve Farber is president of Extreme Leadership, Inc., an organization devoted to changing the world through the cultivation and development of Extreme Leaders in the business community. He is the former "Vice President and Official Mouthpiece" (that's what it said on his business card) of the Tom Peters Company and is a Tom Peters Company Fellow (he's not exactly sure what that means, but he thinks it's a good thing). Sought after by the business world for his ability to help executives embrace and apply cutting-edge leadership practices, Steve has conducted hundreds of client engagements with thousands of businesspeople in a wide variety of industries all over the world. He lives in the San Diego, California, area. His new book, The Radical Leap: A Personal Lesson in Extreme Leadership is a recent winner of Fast Company magazine's Readers Choice Award.
tompeters.com asks ...
What do you do for work?
SF: Lately I've been speaking and delivering workshops—around 60 engagements a year. But by choice I haven't really taken on any consulting or coaching clients for the last couple of years because I wanted to create some freedom to write the book.
Let's talk about your book, Radical Leap: A Personal Lesson in Extreme Leadership. Why did you write a book?
SF: Having been involved in some form of consulting or training in the leadership arena for about 15 years and being involved with some great research, like Jim Kouzes's research on leadership and Tom's stuff and Terry Pearce's work, and helping people apply it, I've come to my own point of view on effective leadership. I've seen enormous gaps between what people say they ought to do, as far as leadership goes, and what actually happens, so I finally realized I had to try and make a difference in my own way—and in my own unique voice. So it wasn't so much a career move, like "Oh, gee, I've got to write a book now if I want to speak more." It was really more a way to get greater clarity for myself and, I would hope, in the process help other people get some clarity, too.
And you've written this as a, I guess you would call it an extended parable. It's a nonfiction/fiction mix. Why did you do that?
SF: Generally speaking, I'm not a real fan of the parable genre. There are a couple of exceptions. I really like Pat Lencioni's writing. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team was his biggest hit so far. Now he's got a new book out called Death by Meeting.
That's a good title.
SF: And good stuff, too.
I ended up writing my book as a story because I'm a natural storyteller, and I found I was better able to express my own unique point of view and say it in a way that hasn't been done before. I'd never written any fiction before, so I was surprised to find that the characters and story emerged as I went along. I literally didn't know what was going to happen next when I sat down to write. It was both exciting and terrifying at the same time.
So it wasn't really a strategic decision. It wasn't that the parable genre is kind of hot, so maybe people will buy this if I wrote it this way. I just wanted to connect with people through writing in the same way that I connect with them when I'm live. And, frankly, it turned out to be a blast.
Why does leadership turn you on?
SF: Well, obviously, nothing happens until somebody does something. When you look at Tom's work, for example, or any of the great leadership or business thinkers—gurus, whatever you want to call them—it's very easy for people to read those books and say, "Yeah, that's cool and this company really ought to do that," or "That's a really neat idea." But things don't become real until someone sticks his neck out and does something.
In all the experience that I've had with various companies that I've worked with, the key factor in whether or not a company was progressive, whether they were cutting edge, whether they were successful in any measure, had to do with the quality of the leadership. That's where the greatest leverage is.
I know it sounds obvious, but I saw so many times where a company or a division or a team would be moving in a particular direction and then that leader would leave or get promoted or retire or whatever it is, and the place would just fall apart. So leadership turns me on because that's where the action happens.
One of your characters says you have to "fall in love with your life's work again, my friend, or your energy will wane, your voice will falter, and there will be nothing to prove but the fact that you're taking up valuable space."
Was that your condition? Have you always been in love with your work? Did you fall out of love with your work? Did you have to reconnect with it?
SF: I've been through that cycle more times than I can count. There've been a number of times I really felt I was putting forth my best effort, going into a company with a great deal of passion and enthusiasm, and seeing absolutely nothing happen as a result of it. When that happens, it feels like, here I go, I'm getting on another airplane, I'm going to teach another workshop, and the work itself is kind of fun, but there's really no lasting significance in it.
At one point I hit the wall. I was totally and completely fried, and it forced me to really think about what I do and why I do it. I came to the conclusion that ultimately the motivator of a leader is love. It comes down to the heart. It's love of something or someone. Love of the cause, of the principle, of the idea, of the future that you're trying to create, love of the people that you're serving and the people that you're working with. That's really where the energy comes from.
There are so many people that I've met who are just going through the motions or banging their heads against the wall every day, and the only reason they go to work is to collect the paycheck and live their lives on the weekends.
But with all this time that we spend at work, and the blurred lines between office and home, what a terrible waste of life that is. Just filling in space is not a good place to be—and it certainly doesn't qualify one for leadership.
You touch on it in the book, the fact that talking about love doesn't fly in corporate America. Love is a little too weird to be in a business book. Don't some people say that to you?
SF: I was concerned at first, but not anymore. Here's the way I look at my work now: I get paid to speak out on what I think and on the conclusions I've drawn—erroneously or not—and on the things that I passionately believe based on the experience I've had, the research I've been involved with, people that I've worked with, etc. And a couple of years ago, it crystallized for me, it just hit me that this was all about love. Not only is love entirely appropriate in the context of business, but there's a tremendous competitive advantage if we could cultivate love in the way that we do business.
So when I came to that conclusion, I said, all right, I've got to get up there and I've got to say it. Which touches on one of the other elements of the book—the OS!M, or the Oh Shit! Moment. That was an OS!M for me, because the first time I talked about love, I was speaking at an association of senior managers from the paint manufacturing industry. So the audience was the classic manufacturing, old white male audience. There were several hundred people and I'd say it was about 98 to 99 percent male. In fact, I'm not even sure there was a female in the audience, now that I think about it.
I got up in front of this audience and talked about how love is the thing; business and leadership is really all about love. I braced myself for the spitballs. There was a reaction in the audience, but it was more along the lines of Amen and Hallelujah, although they didn't say those words.
When I was done with that speech and I was putting my computer away, an older gentleman came up to me. He was a senior executive in his company and he pulled me aside and he said, "You know what? I just wanted to say thanks, because I forgot. I knew that love thing, and I just forgot. It was nice to be reminded after all these years."
His comments gave me a lot of encouragement. Not long after that, I was speaking to an association meeting of about 1000 telecom and Internet engineers. You know the engineer stereotype: "Don't give me that people stuff; we're into things, man." I delivered that same message about love being the primary motivator for leaders.
A couple of days later, I got back to my office and I had an email from a supervisor who was just in that audience. He wrote, "I told my technicians to make the customer absolutely love you, take-you-home-to-dinner love you, meet-the-wife-and-kids love you, because if the customer loves you, you can blow up their building and they'll say 'accidents happen.'"
The love I'm talking about is not only the motivation of a leader but it's also just good business. It's conventional wisdom that the more your customers love you the more they're going to keep coming back. This engineer's point of view highlights the forgiveness factor that comes with a great, love-oriented business relationship.
On the subject of love, one of the characters in the book, William Maritime, says, the ideal is, "Do what you love in the service of people who love what you do." That covers everything as far as I'm concerned.
The first part, "do what you love," is your own connection to your work. That's where you get your energy. How can you expect your customers to love doing business with you if you don't love your business yourself? People have a pretty sophisticated bullshit meter and they know when you're faking it. I'm not talking about the metaphysical "do what you love and the money will follow" hoo-ha stuff. If you're in love with your work you're going to bring more energy and imagination and creativity to it. And you're going to have the juice to work through the obstacles. But it's not doing what you love just because. The ethical context or moral context, or whatever you want to call it, is "in the service of people."
Leaders should see themselves as being in the service of the people that they're leading. You're creating the best possible environment for them to do the best possible work. And it's also in the service of the people that you're selling to, essentially, and those people should "love what you do." That doesn't mean go out and only do business with the people who already love you. It should be at the core of everything that you're trying to create.
There was a profile on Sony in Fortune magazine a while back. It pointed out that if you talk to the product development people at Sony, you'll find that the core design criterion for all their products is to "touch the heart."
SF: That leads me to think that that should be our core design criterion in everything we do: "touch the heart." Tom is fond of thinking of everything as design, and I agree. Leaders are involved in designing everything from culture to teams to goals to products. We design all of that. So if the core design criterion is to "touch the heart" then what we're doing is actively, consciously, and intentionally trying to cultivate love.
I'm thinking back to your comment earlier and the guy who came up to you after your speech and said "thanks for reminding me. I knew that, once." Which then reminds me about a joke one of your characters tells. It's about an old married couple sitting around the table and the wife says to the husband, who's reading the newspaper, "You don't tell me you love me anymore." The husband says, well I told you "I love you" when we got married.
SF: And then he says, "If anything changes I'll let you know."
I've gotten sensitized to these male-female differences with Tom's cavalcade of women's issues in his work right now. I thought, that is so "guy." You say something once and it's good for 30 years. But we do just have to be reminded about these very basic things.
SF: There are three kinds of comments that I tend to get from people when I'm out there doing my thing. One is some version of, "Thanks for reminding me; I knew that once but I forgot." Then there's "Thanks for reinforcing what I've been doing." I hear that from a lot of people. And it's nice for them to hear somebody from the outside who's got no personal stake in what they're doing telling them that they're doing the right thing. The third category is, "I never thought of that."
They're all gratifying. Getting people to think about their lives and businesses in a different way is very rewarding—for them and for me. But it's no less rewarding to inspire people to keep doing the great stuff they're already doing.
You have this acronym LEAP—I know we all start twitching when we're confronted with another business acronym—and love is the L word. Can you briefly summarize what the significance of the other attributes are?
SF: Sure. It's Love, Energy, Audacity, and Proof. Cultivating love is really the foundation of it because, ultimately, love generates energy and love inspires audacity and love requires proof. As in, you can't just say I love you once every 30 years, you have to prove you mean it every day. But what I tried to do was turn that around and say, okay, let's make this into more of a road map for the extreme leader.
Generating energy is that juice that brings you to work every day. Noel Tichy, in The Leadership Engine talks about energy. He says, "Leaders model the energy and intensity that it takes to stay ahead competitively and meet ever more ambitious goals. They do this because they love what they do." It's the leader's job to generate energy in the environment around them. Obviously, we've all worked for and around people that are either entirely lacking in energy or are the walking black holes of human existence; they suck the energy out of whatever they walk into. So the litmus test for all of us, I think, is "Do I generate more energy when I walk into a room or when I walk out of it?" Because we've all met those people that, when they walk into the room everything stops and you hold your breath until they leave.
When you walk into the reception area of a company you've never visited before, you can tell within 30 seconds whether or not the place is exciting and cool, whether they're doing interesting work, or whether it's a morgue.
As an Extreme Leader, it's your job to generate energy in the environment and in the people around you.
There are people that get very energetic about—from the outside looking in—seemingly mundane things. There was a great article in the Wall Street Journal a number of years ago about how Gillette has managed to create an environment that's entirely energetic about razor blades. They are completely stoked about ... shaving!
To hear people talk about the product of developing great shaving technology and how they get so excited about it is really inspiring. What I want people to do is to think about the work that they really do. Does Gillette make razor blades or are they in the business of enhancing the shaving experience? So the question is, "What's exciting about the work that I/we really do here, beyond the transactional nature of our business?"
I think it's important for leaders to be able to answer that question, to expand it out to the higher meaning and purpose of our work, as John Chambers said it once. To really be able to articulate, "this is what we really do here, and this is why this place is cool." And to say it out loud. To talk to people about it. To remind them of it. And get people involved in that conversation.
If our job is to generate energy, again there are a lot of tools that we have at our disposal to do that. The question is what is it that excites people about our work?
We've already talked about how love generates energy. If you love the thing it's going to come out naturally. Great ideas generate energy. Noble values generate energy. A really cool product generates energy. Success generates energy. Failure can generate energy if we deal with it appropriately and learn the right lessons from it and use it as an obstacle to overcome.
Yes, or just treat it as what it is, which is part of the process. The failure thing.
SF: Exactly. And then "audacity" is one of my favorite words because it's so highly charged. Audacity, the way I see it, is "a bold and blatant disregard for normal constraints."
A person who is audacious exhibits "a bold and blatant disregard for normal constraints." Somebody who's inspiring audacity is inspiring others around them to also have "a bold and blatant disregard for normal constraints."
It gets really interesting for me when you go to a thesaurus and look up audacity. Audacity is broken down into two synonym categories. One is audacity as it relates to courage, daring, boldness, and valor. The second is audacity as it relates to impudence, impertinence, temerity, brazenness, and insolence.
We're speaking very specifically about category number one, here: courageous audacity. In other words it's love-inspired audacity. It's the bold and blatant disregard for normal constraints that's necessary to change the world for the better. And by world, you can define that as World with a capital W, or world of our customers, world of our employees, world of our industry, world of our marketplace, whatever it is.
It's the ultimate in audacity to assume that I or we, or our team, or our division, or our company can actually change the world. And it's exactly the right kind of audacity. And, frankly, it's the kind of audacity that the world needs right now.
The fourth step is to provide proof. That needs to happen on a lot of different levels but obviously we're talking about leadership in a business context, and the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. You've got to show progress, you've got to show results, you've got to show the bottom line, you've got to show that your approach is effective.
But the part that's a little less obvious to people, I think, and far more personal, is that we have to prove ourselves to people every day. There are some people that assume, okay, I'm the boss now, I'm the senior manager or whatever it is, and therefore people should trust me, they should respect me, they should be happy to work with me, they should think I have integrity, all these things. That's ridiculous.
I've got to prove to you that I'm trustworthy, I've got to prove to you that I'm worthy of your respect, I have to prove to you that I'm taking leadership seriously. I have to prove to you that I mean what I say. For example, if I've cranked out one of these little value statements that says people are our most important asset, then I've got to prove to you through my actions and behaviors, that I really mean that and it's not just words on a page. That's the proof element of it.
You make that point in the book with the character Smitty who points out to you the sign in the bathroom on a seat-cover dispenser that reads, "Provided by the Management for Your Protection." His point being that those dispensers were not provided by management but rather by a custodian.
SF: There are a lot of things going on in that section. On the level of the story here just for a minute, that was a good example of how this story just unfolded and surprised me. That character, Smitty, came out of nowhere. Visually, he's based on a character that I have seen in Mission Beach, tooling up and down and hanging on the boardwalk.
That sign posted in many toilets around this country, "provided by the management for your protection," speaks to an attitude that gets in our way all the time. In the story, this is what Smitty says about the sign:
"It's arrogant. It's overinflated, self-indulgent, and pififully self-important. Management: the Benevolent Protector. Management: the Bestower of Blessings. Management: the Big Mommy-Daddy. What a load—pun intended.
"All you gotta do is read the business alphabet from Andersen to Xerox to see that it's a lie. In business, nobody provides for your protection. Except you."
They aren't going to provide for our protection and They don't rule our lives, either. People are always talking about Them. Probably the most universal concern that I hear, regardless of company or industry, is someone saying, "Well, you know these are nice ideas, what you're saying here, all this extreme leadership stuff, but I can't do that here because They won't let me."
One thing that I've found to be universally true is that They are never actually there in the room. Whatever the conversation is about and at whatever level in the company, They are never, ever in the room. I begin to wonder if They really exist. They are like mythical gods on Mount Olympus. We blame Them, or we pray to Them but we never actually see Them. My conclusion is that They don't really exist. There's just Us.
I remember a picture from a company showing posted signs that had the word "they" with that international red circle with the strikethrough, meaning it doesn't exist. It was a visual reminder that employees couldn't blame "they" whoever "they" are.
SF: That comes back to proving that you mean it. I don't know anything about that particular company, but a lot of companies, when they latch onto an idea or a philosophy, print up little signs and make buttons and posters and that's all good. Those kinds of reminders are helpful. But in most companies that's where the whole process stops.
The signs go up; the behavior stays the same. I think that mistake is made in a lot of areas, and particularly in the vision thing, where they go to the vision offsite meeting and they create the vision statement and hand it out to everybody. That's a good thing, actually. But, again, most of the time that's where it stops. They check it off their list and say, well, okay, we did the vision thing. It's time to move on to something else.
But what people automatically do when they see a sign like that or read a vision statement or see the poster or read the memo or get the email or whatever, is they read it, and go "hmm," as they start looking around the environment to see if there's evidence that this is really true or if this is just an internal marketing ploy. If they don't see any congruence between the behaviors around them and what it says on the poster or the little laminated card, then they say "bullshit." Then the credibility of the whole place is taken down a notch.
So if I put this slogan on a poster or on a button, I have to make damn sure that I personally am the best evidence that this is really true. That's proof. That makes sense, doesn't it?
Oh, yeah, it makes sense. Since we're talking about it, though, it seems that the real follow-through doesn't happen enough, particularly in large organizations. I always tend to be doomy and gloomy about big companies and think that any organization larger than two people is hopelessly complicated.
SF: Well I think that's true. That's why I've chosen to focus on the individuals. I have essentially given up on, "Okay, I'm going to come in and change your organization." What I'd much rather do, and I think it's more realistic and I think it's more fulfilling, and it's more productive ultimately, is to get to the right people, grab them by the throat, and say, "Listen, what are you going to do differently in your piece of the organization," from 10 people to 100, maybe even 1,000 people, and challenge them to prove there's a better way of doing things in their company.
Can you spot those people when you go into a company?
SF: It just takes a little while. There's a difference between a real leader and a poser. There are a lot of business books out there and lots of people pick up on the buzzwords. You don't know if they're real leaders until you hear what their clients and colleagues have to say about them. That's really what it comes down to. Perception is reality. You want to look at the results, of course. That's an obvious place to go. But the results happen on other levels than just the numbers. It's people's levels of satisfaction and, anecdotally, what they have to say about the leader. That's where you really see the proof.
People love to use the latest buzzword and jaw about the latest management fad. Lately, a lot of clients want me to come and talk about leadership but want to know if I can also say something about "execution." What they're referring to, of course, is Bossidy and Charan's book—and they want "execution" worked into the presentation. And I'm thinking, "Yeah, sure, execution. I hear the guillotine's a good way to do that."
Not very compact, but effective.
SF: Don't get me wrong; I'm not cynical. Language is important. Books are important. Tom Peters' book covers have been read by more people than anyone else's. But that's typically what happens. Something gets popular, people read the covers, then maybe a couple of pieces out of it and they say, "Yes, execution! That's what we should do here! We should execute! Somebody should make a poster about execution someday!" But there are very few people who dive in and try to figure out what that means and make significant changes in the way they work.
Leadership is one of the all-time classic buzzwords. We slap that label on ourselves so easily that the word loses its meaning. "Extreme leadership" is, I think, an important phrase. I'm sure there are people who would accuse me of trying to add a snappy new phrase to the management buzzword lexicon, and they'd be justified, I guess. Maybe it's just a way to try to distinguish what I'm saying from the other billion books on leadership. But if there's anything I should be accused of, it's using a redundant phrase. "Extreme leadership" is a redundant phrase, because if somebody's really leading, what they're doing is already extreme. Leadership is the act of transformation. Taking nothing and turning it into something. Taking something good and turning it into something great. Moving from good to great. That's a big one now.
Good isn't good enough.
SF: Exactly. From great to—I don't know where you go from there. But in any case, if you're really doing that, that's an extreme act. I use the phrase "extreme leadership" to try to move people off the mark a little bit and get them thinking that leadership is not about your position, it's not about your title, and you're not a leader just because your org chart says you are. Having said that, the higher up you go in an organization, the greater the expectation is that you'll lead and not just manage.
So if you're going to get into the game, prepare for it to be an extreme experience. Which really comes back around to the OS!M, which we haven't talked about yet.
Well, there's your perfect segue.
SF: This is the indicator. The way to tell if we're leading or just posing as leaders is the OS!M, or the Oh, Shit! Moment. People use the word fear and exhilaration often times in the same sentence when talking about their own leadership experiences. It's intrinsic to the authentic leadership experience or, as I like to call it, the Extreme Leadership Experience. If you're not experiencing the OS!M with some frequency in the context of your leadership endeavors, then you're still posing. What's interesting about that is, you've got this paradox, because human beings are hard-wired to avoid fear. We run away from things that scare us. And leadership is a scary thing. That's why we have so few people who really step up to the plate.
Here's a great quote from Terry Pearce, from an article he wrote in the San Francisco Examiner: He said, "There are many people who think they want to be matadors, only to find themselves in the ring with 2,000 pounds of bull bearing down on them, and then discover that what they really wanted was to wear tight pants and hear the crowd roar."
The OS!M is an expression of fear, which can be exhilarating, but we generally think of fear as a negative thing. The fear is there because we're taking a risk, which, by definition, means that there's no guarantee of a positive outcome. We've got to be willing to fail. So sometimes the OS!M results in failure and sometimes it results in success. The tricky part is that in the moment you can't tell the difference.
What do you mean by "in the moment"?
SF: When you're experiencing the OS!M it all feels wrong, so you don't know if this is going to result in a success, if this is a good thing or a bad thing. Where that really crystallized for me was when I saw Jimmy Shea interviewed the day after he won the gold medal for the men's skeleton in the last winter Olympics.
He was asked if he remembered the first time he ever went down the run and he said, "Yeah, I was going way too fast and I realized I'd just made the biggest mistake of my life. When I got to the bottom I couldn't wait to get back up and do it again."
Those words, "I just realized I made the biggest mistake of my life," are profound to me, because he's not saying "It felt wrong," or "I thought maybe this was not such a good idea," but the reality in that moment was "this is bad." As humans, we avoid those kinds of experiences, so what I'm trying to do is flip that around and say look, you've got to pursue it. If you haven't experienced the OS!M, you haven't pushed it far enough. You think you empowered somebody? You think you really gave them discretion and control? Well, did it scare you? Because if it didn't, then you probably haven't given over control. So push it further.
The example that really sticks with me is where the guy comes in and asks all of his direct reports to tell him what they really think about him as a leader and then he leaves the room. They get to write all this stuff out and it comes back and it's devastatingly honest, meaning a lot of it is negative. I think that's a great example, and anybody who's in a position of leadership in a company or anywhere ought to do that. Provide a way to receive honest feedback from those people they're leading.
SF: Seeking direct, honest feedback on your own effectiveness as a leader is always a great OS!M opportunity. A really important distinction to make, which I didn't go into in any great depth in the book, is that not everything qualifies as an OS!M. I mean something very specific about the OS!M: it's the fear/exhilaration you experience in your leadership endeavors or in the growth process as a human being. It's an indicator of growth. It's not about taking stupid risks or going after the adrenalin rush.
Let's say I bought a new car because it tested really well on all the safety ratings. I drive it off the lot and I'm driving it home and it feels pretty solid but I really want to try it out. So I drive into that brick wall at 40 miles an hour. Just before I hit there are two words that come to mind. You could say that's an OS!M but that doesn't count. That's just stupid.
There are times when I'm faced with a challenge and I know it's something that I must do and that fear starts to come in. There's a little click that goes on in my head that says, all right, there you go. That means that I'm moving in the right direction.
Yes, I absolutely agree, because I think people do experience that and I think you're so dead on about that and that's right where people turn away as soon as it starts feeling scary. It's like people always say how will I know what to do? But I think when you're in a situation it's always the scariest alternative that seems to be the right thing to do. Which I think is the equivalent of your Oh Shit! Moment. The thing that's going to scare you the most is for some reason really the way to go. That's been my experience. And it's just so wrong-headed, as you say. As humans the last thing we want to do is constantly scare the crap out of ourselves, and yet it always has the greatest result.
SF: I'm not saying I have this down yet, but what I find myself working towards is having my mind interpret the OS!M as a good thing. The experience doesn't change. It's still scary but the mind says, you know what? This is good. There's an appreciation that develops for it. So it does seem to change the nature of the experience a little bit and it becomes more exhilarating and less scary. Exhilarating as like a rollercoaster, which is scary, but then you stand in line and you go back on it again. Or like the way Jimmy Shea described his experience.
The OS!M is part of the leadership experience and the OS!M means that there's no guarantee of a positive outcome and therefore there might be failure. Remember, leadership is not a solo act. It's not something that you do in a cave or in the proverbial vacuum. It's a public act. You put those two things together, then what it tells us is that you have to be willing to pursue the OS!M publicly.
If the OS!M is part of leadership and leadership is a public act, then we're in the realm of the public OS!M, which is what Michael did in the story that you just referred to. He put himself on the line in a very personal and public sort of way and that act cranks up the fear level to such a degree that I believe that's why we really see so few authentic, or as I like to call them, extreme leaders today, because most people would just rather not do that.
There's a guy that I met ten years ago, Dick Nettell, who was a client of the Tom Peters Company. At the time he was a vice president of support services, back office, check processing, that kind of back-office operational stuff at Bank of America. They were doing a leadership training initiative there, using the Leadership Challenge. Instead of having us come in and present the workshop to people, we trained their managers to co-facilitate the workshop, and we taught the staff together. One facilitator from our company teamed up with one of their managers.
I trained Dick, so we got to know each other really well. He had to learn material and then we co-facilitated a bunch of things. What I remember about Dick was hanging out with him during a break in one of these workshops and standing outside on the sidewalk at one of the facilities in Pleasanton, California. Everyone who walked by said hi to him. Real warm. "Hey, Dick, how are you doing?" It was like standing with a celebrity. What really struck me was that Dick had a story to tell about every one of those people. That showed me that he really loved these people. He cared enough about them to not only interact with them in meaningful ways, but he remembered their stories all these years later and was still telling them.
As we were going through the workshops, we would have conversations about who the most admired leader was and Dick's name would come up all the time. It was really outrageous. Talk about a guy who lives in pursuit of the OS!M and who is motivated by love. He is the total embodiment of this. He sticks his neck out as a matter of routine. He said, "People see me take a risk, they see me go to bat for them, they know that they can really try something and if it doesn't work they've got a safety net. I'll run interference for them, I'll help them learn from it, we'll talk about our mistakes." He does all these things that we've been talking about.
I was catching up with him last week. He's been promoted and is now senior vice president of corporate services. His organization went from 1500 people to 175. Mostly through outsourcing. Under his watch. Then he gave me another set of numbers: 73 to 89 in the same period. You want to guess what that number is?
His golf score?
SF: Associate satisfaction scores. In the same period. From 73 to 89. You can say that they still have their jobs and they're happy, so that's why the scores went up. But that's not the way it works, typically. With the people left behind, you usually see higher levels of survivor guilt, paranoia, feelings of "am I next?" You don't see people rallying around the cause. When people get transferred out of his organization to another one within B of A, they're just devastated. Because they'd been part of something so cool. Dick is not the kind of guy to take credit for that. (Although he can, because he's the one who generates energy in the environment.) He is the embodiment of audacity and the "bold and blatant disregard for normal constraints."
I asked him how he does this. He said, "The art is in doing it every goddamn day." It's the persistence over time, proving it over and over again. So there are people out there doing it and that's where I get my inspiration. Like everybody else in our field we love to tell stories about other people because we learn from each other's examples.
One of the first things you said about Dick was that he had a story about everyone. A lot of the branding literature these days is about how brands are their stories, that companies are learning to tell their own stories. People are drawn to storytellers. I wonder if half of his skill is the fact that he just intuitively turns everything into a story?
SF: I do think that's a big part of the skill. But this is the essence of it to me. It's not so much the ability to tell a story. It's the desire to have a story to tell about somebody.
I would agree. Exactly. It's wanting to have that story. That's his way of connecting.
SF: Right. Because he cares. That's the bottom line. He cares enough to pay attention to others, and he has the desire to sing their praises. It's not a "management technique," it's the natural expression of his love for people.
There are a lot of things you can put in the category of management tools and techniques. Like telling stories about our customer service and telling stories about our brand and telling stories about people living out the values. We all know that stuff. They are good techniques. Or, for example, writing a note of appreciation to somebody. How you recognize people. Those are all tools and techniques and they're all important. But the point I'm trying to make is that if you genuinely and truly care for and love the people that you're working with or that you're trying to inspire, those things will come out naturally.
But we tend to go to the technique first. "Give me some things to do," we say. I'd rather have you sit down and take a couple of minutes, pick one person at work that you really care about and just reflect on why you care about that person. What are their qualities and characteristics, what contribution have they made. Think about that person and then write a note or take them to lunch or use whatever "technique" you'd like. But now it's going to be real and what you're doing is actually cultivating your heart and your love for that person—and that's where the connection gets made.
And anybody can do that?
SF: Anybody that wants to.
Are people natural leaders or is this something that can be learned? Clearly there are a lot of people leading in corporate America these days who shouldn't be. And they're getting weeded out, at least some of them.
SF: Well, one would hope. But I think it goes back to the age-old question: are leaders born or are they made? Jim Kouzes cleared that up for me when I joined the Tom Peters Company in 1994. First he said that he's never yet met a leader who wasn't born. So being born is a prerequisite—and on that level, I assume, we all qualify. Then he said there are some people who are naturally inclined to leadership just like there are some people who are naturally inclined to anything else that you can think of. Music, art, mathematics, athletics, whatever it is.
That makes a lot of sense to me. I'm not a basketball player. I know I'm never going to be Michael Jordan. But if you're a basketball coach and you work with me for a couple of months, I'm going to be much better at basketball in two months than I am now. The same is true for leadership. You get the right ideas, you work with the right people, you get the right kind of feedback and coaching, you can get better at this. It doesn't mean that everybody's going to be the next Gandhi or, um, Martha Stewart.
Oh, Martha. Oh, you've broken our hearts.
SF: Here's the conclusion I've come to. When I have time in a workshop, I'll have people, in the context of cultivating love, answer questions such as why do I love this business, why do I love this project, why do I love this idea, why do I love these colleagues? I also like to have people write a note, while they're sitting there, to somebody back at work that they genuinely and truly love. I'll accept "care about" if love is too strong for them. And then have a little discussion as to why we don't usually do this. Well, if the only reason you can think of to not communicate with somebody, to not write that note, or give that recognition, is that the thought scares you, makes you feel vulnerable or makes you uncomfortable, then that's the reason to do it. That's the pursuit of the OS!M. That's the indicator that you're moving in the right direction, not the wrong direction.
Some people protest and say, "That's not me. I'm not that kind of person. I'm not expressive, I just don't write notes." And my response to that is: I don't care. Because it's not about you. It's about them. It's about the kind of impact that you can have on somebody else's life.
It seems to me whatever they say there, you can always just say, this is your Oh Shit! Moment, as long as they understand the OS!M concept.
SF: Exactly. That is the leverage tool that I try to use to inspire people to change their behavior. Because if I can establish the concept of the OS!M, and most of the time people do get it, then they can understand that if the only reason they can think of to not do "X" is because it scares them, then that's the reason to do it. If fear is the only reason you can think of to not have that tough conversation with your boss, for example, then that's your sign that you should have the conversation. That's your OS!M.
But being direct with the boss could lead to a very negative result.
SF: Sure. It's what a lot of companies refer to as the classic CLM: Career Limiting Move. Of course you always have to do your own personal risk assessment. What it ultimately comes down to is, is the risk/reward ratio worth it? But then you find yourself on the classic slippery slope, because that can lead to an attitude of, "I'll take on a leadership role as long as you can guarantee me that everything's going to work out okay." And that's a self-canceling statement. So if you really want to step into extreme leadership, you can't wait for the guarantee. You have to do your homework and assess the risks and rewards, and ask yourself, am I willing to pay the price for this?
If they care enough about it, they will.
SF: Which comes right back to the heart. Why on earth would you stick your neck out for something unless your heart was in it. Right? If you love the idea or the cause or the principle or the customer or your colleagues, then it'll be worth the effort no matter how it turns out in the end.