Tag Archives: management

Avoiding the Rigor Mortis of Leadership

It is a sure sign of dead leadership when the leader becomes inflexible, unresponsive to input, stuck in rigid positions and is exacting as to how things are to be done.

Do you remember the scene in Washington, D. C. on a cold January day in 2009, when Barack Obama stepped spritely to the podium to address a mass of 1,800,000 cheering, emotional and expectant citizens to take the oath as the first African-American president of the United States? At that moment Obama rose to the very pinnacle of his power as a leader.

Since then, like air leaking from a wounded hot-air balloon, Obama’s power to soar has dissipated and his ability to lead effectively has Barack Obamaplummeted to all-time lows. Now, after less than six years, President Obama’s leadership power is approaching full rigor mortis and the only question is whether he has enough power to get anything done.

Even though they are on a much grander scale, the challenges to preserve presidential power are no different than those every leader, on any level, must deal with. It is unlikely that any but a few of those who faithfully read this blog (such as Joe Biden, Chris Christie, Rand Paul and Hillary Clinton) will ever face the same type of leadership challenges that have beset Barak Obama. But, even so, we can all learn from his experience in a way that will enable us to successfully face up to the task of retaining effective leadership power; no matter what may be our position of leadership. After all, a leader without power is not a leader.

It is a fact of life that everyone loves a leader until, that is, they actually begin to lead. To paraphrase Lincoln: You can lead all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot lead all the people all the time. Once a leader begins to use the power of their position to make changes or bring about new actions, if they are not careful, their power will begin to dissipate, because not all will agree with all their decisions. And that bottom line is this:

If the only approach to leadership is to use the power of the position to get things done, then that leadership will soon begin to show signs of “leadership rigor mortis.”

Decisions will begin to lack transparency, become narrow in scope, inflexible, non-responsive to input and rigid. This in turn leads to a loss of power and ultimately the death of leadership.

What leaders – at all levels – have to appreciate is that if they want to retain power, they must do even more to keep it than they did to attain it. This means they have to constantly strive to preserve the “freshness of power” as it was when they first acquired it. We all witnessed the emotion, excitement, optimism and hope of millions as Barak Obama was sworn in that day in 2009. Successful leaders recognize it is not possible to maintain power at such a pure level. After all they do have to lead. But they can focus on doing things with that idea in mind.

Preserving Power

There are a number of actions a leader can take to help preserve the freshness of power and prevent the onset of leadership rigor mortis. What many fail to understand is that one of the most effective ways for a leader to safeguard their power is to share power. When a leader apportions power among their followers, they broaden the base of their influence, which in turn, solidifies their power. Those who receive power from a leader will feel important, respected, trusted and valued. This will serve to motivate followers to work for the success of the leader, because that success could mean even more power will be shared.

The less a leader has to flex their power to get things done, the more power they will retain. The effective leader accomplishes this objective by first working to get the followers to “buy-in” to the specific goal of the leader and then allowing the followers to influence how the objective is achieved. To keep their power fresh, leaders should always be focused on what needs to be done, not how it is done. When a leader refrains from using their power to make all the decisions and instead empowers others to develop and implement the strategy and tactics of achieving an objective, the followers reach the point of believing (because it is true) that what is to be done is their own idea.

Employees Can be Leader and Followers  

When I was leading LifeUSA Insurance Company, I was convinced the company would have a competitive advantage if we could offer superior service to our independent agents. (When talking with agents in the field, poor service from other companies was their number one complaint.) Of course, every company could and did promise good service, but the key would be to deliver it; and most companies were failing to deliver.

It would have been easy to use my power as CEO to command the employees of LifeUSA to provide good service to the agent and then to tell them how to do it. Instead, I took the approach of trying to sell everyone in the company on the value to all stakeholders — including themselves – of providing top-flight service. Then, I challenged and empowered them to find the best way to convince the agent of our commitment to superior service, and to actually provide it.

Once the people of LifeUSA bought into the value to be gained by providing outstanding service to the agent (they were all also shareholders of the company) they set about finding a solution. The employees (owners) set up “Work Simplification Groups” that resulted in two great concepts: The “$100 48-hour Challenge” and the “Fast Team.”

The “48-hour challenge” promised the agent that once a properly completed application was received in the home office, a decision would be made and a policy issued within two days; or the agent would receive a check for $100. (Industry norm at the time was 6 to 8 WEEKS!) LifeUSA employees became so focused on meeting the “48-hour challenge” they would voluntarily take work home or come in on weekends to meet the goal. The idea of the “Fast Team” was to have a group of LifeUSA employees dedicated to being available to answer any agent questions, track down problems and resolve issues. (This also freed up others to do the actual work.) Not only was the “Fast Team” a way to demonstrate to the agent a commitment to service, but it also served as a great training ground to cross-train individuals in the ins and outs of the entire company.

These two efforts were not my ideas, but the ideas of those in the company, and came about because of a willingness to share power. Their efforts soon established LifeUSA as the preeminent provider of outstanding service in the insurance industry and were big contributors to the success of LifeUSA. It was a result that also increased the perception of my power and effectiveness as a leader.

One of the best ways to trigger leadership rigor mortis is to present followers with a fait accompli. Nothing drains the power of a leader faster than a situation where the decision, strategy and tactics are already decided and are imposed on the followers out of the blue. A leader should make it a point to never surprise followers by their decisions. A leader should understand that it takes more power to enlist the support of followers after a decision has been made, than it does to build that support before the decision is made.

One of the most consistent criticisms of President Obama’s leadership style that has brought on leadership rigor mortis is that he is not collaborative and inclusive; with both friends and enemies. It often appears that his approach is to use the power of his office to drive through what he wants to accomplish, rather than using his power to enlist the commitment of others to offer ideas and solutions and work for his objective.

At LifeUSA, when it was determined that a product, compensation system or some other process needed to be changed, and that chage would impact agents, the rule was to always solicit input and ideas from key leaders among the agent group. They were not given the power to make the decision, but they were empowered to provide input on the decision and offer suggestions as to the best way to make the necessary changes.

The benefits from this approach were numerous. Often times these field leaders were able to offer constructive suggestions and identify issues that we “experts” in the home office had not recognized. But the most important point was that when the final decision was announced, those who were most impacted were not surprised and taken off-guard. In fact, because they had been part of the process, these individuals took the lead in explaining and selling the changes to others in the field. From my perspective, this allowed me to achieve the objective, without having to expend a wad of power trying to force the change through. This approach in fact enhanced my power as a leader, because all of those involved knew they would be part of the process and share that power.

And the Moral of the Story …

Fame may be fleeting, but the power to lead effectively can be even more transitory—especially when power is the only basis of leadership. The solution to the challenge of retaining power and keeping it fresh is not found in power itself, but how power is used. To be enduring, power must be a tool of leadership, not a weapon of control.

When a person begins to believe that power is something that belongs to them, because they are in a position of leadership, they are marching down a dangerous path. And when that attitude causes the leader to focus on efforts such as a lack of transparency, inflexibility, rigidity and being non-responsiveness to input, all to keep that power corralled, they will soon find their power suffering from rigor mortis. When this happens, no matter what their title may be, they become powerless as leaders.

Most Leaders and Companies Fail From Lack of Interest

Power and potential are lost when employees don’t care and don’t do

People who are important to the success of an organization will strive for the success of that business so long as they are treated as if they are important to its success. It is unfortunate that most corporate managers don’t view employees in that light, but more as interchangeable cogs existing only for the benefit of the company. Such an attitude, which is blatantly exhibited by many corporate bigwigs, leads to employee dissatisfaction and disincentive to apply their full talents for the benefit of the company.

In an annual employee satisfaction survey of The Conference Board it was discovered that fewer than half of U.S. workers (45%) are satisfied with their current jobs. This is the lowest recorded level in almost 25 years and comes at a time when unemployment rates remain high. One has to ask: When employees are dissatisfied with their jobs, how likely are they to be willing to put forth the extra effort to help the company be successful?

Remember the vastly popular sitcom Cheers? The show took place in a local Boston bar and explored the lives of an eclectic group of Bostonians who always ended up coming back to the same bar. Why? Because they felt like they belonged: “Everybody knows your name; everybody’s glad you came.” Having a sense of belonging made the customers feel welcome and appreciated. Have you ever had a friend come to you and ask your advice on something that was really important to them? Were you complimented that someone would think enough of you to ask your opinion regarding an issue they were encountering? When you go into a restaurant and the host greets you by name, does that make you feel good and make you want to return to the restaurant again? Of course it does.

As simple as these examples may be, they are the basis for successful leadership and motivating employees to work hard to contribute to the success of an organization. When a leader strives to make people feel welcome as a part of the group, appreciated for the value they bring, and respected for what they can contribute, then the members of the group feel wanted and important. This not only increases their satisfaction with their job, but encourages them to support the objectives of the company and what ultimately leads to a more profitable enterprise.

Many corporate leaders like to spout off about how important the employees are to the success of the company, even referring to them as “associates” or “partners.” Unfortunately, all too often, their actions belie their cozy words. The truth is that most corporate managers do not believe that employees are a business’s most important asset – they think they are!

Typical corporate managers become so wrapped up in themselves, their next bonus and moving up the ladder that they forget (or ignore) that employees are the key not only to their success as a leader but to the financial success of any business. On the other hand, selfishness leads directly to employee dissatisfaction and less-than-maximum work effort.

Successful corporate leaders have a deep, honest belief that if they and their organizations are to be successful they must create an environment that will attract and hold a group of energetic, highly motivated, satisfied employees who will go all out for the company and the leader. The secret is to create an environment that shows respect for the value of the employee, communicates openly, rewards equitably and that not only condones employee participation, but encourages it. Employees working in this type of culture will work with passion and feel a profound sense of connection with their company and their leaders.

How many of you reading this blog can honestly say that you feel that way about your current job and boss? My guess is that very few can, but it does not have to be – and should not – be that way.

If you are in a leadership position or seek to be so, your potential for success will be greatly enhanced when you recognize the importance of employees to business success and by showing that you sincerely believe this by the way you interact with them.

You will have a much better chance for success when you do things like:

  • Be entirely transparent with your employees.
  • Invite employee participation and input in your business decisions.
  • Provide opportunity for your employees to grow and utilize the full range of their talents.
  • Engage employees with ongoing open, honest and consistent communications – especially regarding goals and job performance.
  • Keep your commitments and promises made—always.
  • Constantly take actions that demonstrate your view of employees as assets not mindless cogs.

Leaders who adopt this type of mentality and approach are – as we all know – clearly in the minority. But they are also in another minority, the minority of truly successful leaders because they have created an environment that fosters employee job satisfaction. From that basis springs genuine, wholehearted effort and success.

And the Moral of the Story …

Corporate managers will often bemoan the fact that most employees are not “self-starters” and need rules, regulations and close supervision in order to get them to do their job. What these managers don’t recognize is that such an attitude is a clear indictment of their own leadership skills. The job of the leader is to give the follower a reason to get started. Even the most powerful high-performance sports car will be inert unless someone is there to start it. Employees are encouraged to start and perform well only when they work in an environment that makes them feel wanted, important, respected and satisfied.

Mr. Sam Must be Rolling Over in His Grave

Business Credibility Once Lost is Very Difficult to Regain

Under the inspirational leadership of Sam Walton, the merchandising juggernaut known as Wal-Mart rose from the backwaters of Arkansas (of course, all of Arkansas is backwater) to do what was thought to be impossible: dethrone mighty Sears to become the world’s largest retailer. Yet, the retailing giant is suffering through its second straight year of declining same-store sales.

Many are suggesting that Wal-Mart is on the backside of its glory and may never again recapture the sharp-edged, highly focused blitzkrieg of marketing dominance that virtually destroyed Sears and left other competitors in the dust.

With almost 9,000 stores in 15 countries, over $400 billion in revenue, along with $24 billion in operating income, Wal-Mart remains clearly the dominant retailer in the world; and no one is suggesting the company is in trouble (at least not now). The sheer size and purchasing leverage of Wal-Mart means that no matter how many mistakes and miscalculations the current management may make, it will continue to slog on for decades. But it does seem there are cracks in the foundation of Wal-Mart that have slowed growth and opened the door to threatening competition.

Play it Again, Sam

Those who follow Wal-Mart are of the general belief that the slowing growth of the company is due to current management moving away from Sam Walton’s basic principles and winning formula for success.

Mr. Sam (as he was referred to in the company) had a basic value formula – “everyday low prices for the American working class” – from which he did not divert till his dying day. In doing so, he exhibited the most basic traits of successful leadership: A clear, easy to understand vision; constant communication of the vision and consistent adherence to it. It was not until Walton’s death at age 74 that management of the company began to shift away from this formula of success.

As reported by Miguel Bustillo in The Wall Street Journal (Feb. 22, 2011), the new management of Wal-Mart began to respond to the rise of competition from such companies as Target, and the myriad dollar stores, discount grocery chains and online retailers, by trying to do what these other companies were doing. Instead of being the competition, Wal-Mart began chasing the competition. This is the classic mistake that management of successful companies – especially second and third generations of management – often make. They began to move Wal-Mart away from the fundamental vision that created its success.

Wal-Mart began to forfeit its unique market niche and connection with the customer by falling in line with traditional retailers. The company moved away from the message of “everyday low prices” and began raising prices on some items, while promoting “deals” on others. Wal-Mart reneged on the promise of Sam Walton as a place for one-stop shopping with across-the-board low prices all the time. This strategy confused and frustrated the traditional Wal-Mart customer. As former Wal-Mart executive Jimmy Wright said, “The basic Wal-Mart customer didn’t leave Wal-Mart. What happened is that Wal-Mart left the customer.”

Not satisfied with a near death-grip on working-class Americans earning less than $70,000 dollars a year, the management of Wal-Mart violated the second part of Sam Walton’s vision by attempting to move “upscale.” This created a double-whammy of negative results. Shoppers higher on the economic scale were not attracted to Wal-Mart and the traditional customer of the company began to literally be priced out of the store.

It is worth repeating Sam Walton’s fundamental vision for the company: “Everyday low prices for the American (now read ‘worldwide’) working class.” When the company diverted from this vision and implemented a copycat strategy, is it any wonder that growth began to slow?

This criticism of Wal-Mart management does not mean that large, successful companies should obstinately cling to the status quo and resist innovation and change. Such an approach can be even more destructive to a company’s future. Any company – large or small – should constantly seek out innovation and lead change. But this should be done within the scope of its fundamental vision.

Sam Walton was the epitome of the consummate entrepreneur who is never satisfied with the way things are and constantly seeks change and innovation to make things the way they should be. Clearly, considering the competition he faced in building Wal-Mart, Mr. Sam would have failed had he not been the way he was. However, he did so within the framework of his basic vision for the company. Mr. Sam understood – obviously better than current management – that what you seek to achieve, i.e. “everyday low prices” should be inviolate, while how the vision is achieved is constantly open to change and innovation.

The current management of Wal-Mart has admitted that their diversion from the company’s basic vision was a serious mistake and has vowed to recapture Mr. Sam’s winning formula. Yeah, sure! It may be that the size and power of the Wal-Mart franchise will provide the resources and time to do so, but the odds of it happening are slim. For one thing, bureaucrats, not entrepreneurs, are now running Wal-Mart. These bureaucrats have already shown a proclivity to copy and follow, not innovate and lead. They have also shown a failure to understand the difference between strategic vision and tactics. But what is more troublesome for Wal-Mart management is rebuilding the company’s credibility. Once the core vision of a company has been compromised, it is very difficult to regain. Actions by the current Wal-Mart management have frustrated and confused not only the employees and suppliers of Wal-Mart, but even more critically, the customers.

Few companies had as much trust and credibility with the customer than had Wal-Mart. The customer knew what to expect and what they would get. Once that bond of trust and credibility is broken, it is very difficult to repair. If you win with the customer by specifically differentiating yourself from others and by appealing directly to their needs, it is problematic that the trust and credibility can be maintained when you begin to copy what others do. Sam Walton would be sad. And what really made him different is that he would be sad both for the company and the customers.

And the Moral of the Story …

If you can make it better, then fine, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The phenomenal success of Wal-Mart proved that the basic vision and focus of Sam Walton to “provide everyday low prices to the American working class,” was the driver of that success. Change and innovation should always be sought to buttress the vision, but not to change it. There is a good leadership lesson to learn here: You can tinker with the toys, but not that you are in the toy business.