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 / Fourth Quarter 2001 / Issue 25(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books: CEO Memoirs

The measure of leadership is not the quality of the head, but the tone of the body. The signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among the followers. Are the followers reaching their potential? Are they learning? Serving? Do they achieve the required results? Do they change with grace? Manage conflict?

DePree believed that employees have a right to be treated with respect, a right that is theirs by virtue of their humanity, and, therefore, not one that can be either granted or rescinded by management. In essence, that was the point that Robert Owen tried to convey nearly 200 years earlier.

Over the last two decades, several CEOs have written about leadership from the same perspective as Townsend and DePree, but few have been as original, and only one (that I am aware of) has been written by the leader’s own hand. Two recent ghostwritten memoirs are noteworthy for their practicality and sound advice. Gordon Bethune’s From Worst to First: Behind the Scenes of Continental’s Remarkable Comeback (1998) describes in useful detail what he and his colleagues at Continental did to bring that airline back from the brink of extinction. Bethune destroys the myth of the CEO as a grand strategist who single-handedly devises a brilliant plan to save a company. Instead, he argues that leadership is about execution and implementation. What leaders actually do is reframe the thinking of followers, focus their attention on doing what counts, and reward them when they do it. Bethune shows that leadership is not about power or charisma. Instead, it comes down to creating conditions under which all employees routinely do what is needed to create and retain customers.

The ghostwriter did an admirable job of capturing Bethune’s attractive wit and informality, but did the CEO a disservice by failing to acknowledge that most of Bethune’s practices had been pioneered by other executives. Perhaps we can’t expect CEOs to be as generous as Bob Townsend in acknowledging their debt to scholars, but shouldn’t they recognize other leaders, especially those in their own industry, who paved the way for them?

Bethune could have easily tipped his hat to SAS’s Jan Carlzon, whose Moments of Truth: New Strategies for Today’s Customer-Driven Economy (1987) brilliantly documents the process by which he changed the culture of his airline. Indeed, Bethune might have gained credibility by mentioning Carlzon because, although he did basically the same things as the Swedish CEO, Bethune appears to have done so with greater, and certainly more lasting, effect. (Incidentally, Carlzon’s book was better edited than Bethune’s annoyingly repetitious text.)

What Bethune accomplished in a glamorous service industry, Nucor Steel CEO Ken Iverson equaled, if not surpassed, in a dirty “old economy” industry. In his ghostwritten 1997 memoir, Plain Talk: Lessons from a Business Maverick, Iverson explains how he and his colleagues created the most productive American steel company and, more impressively, figured out how to compete against low-cost foreign producers. In essence, they did it the old-fashioned way, as pioneered by Robert Owen and made contemporary by the likes of Townsend and DePree: In Iverson’s words, “What we did was push aside the notion that managers and employees have inherently separate interests. We’ve joined with our employees to pursue a goal we can all believe in: long-term survival.”

Nucor’s methods are twofold: participation by everyone in decision making, and concomitant participation in the financial gains (and losses) that result from the joint efforts of all employees. Although there is nothing new in that, what is unusual — and invaluable — is Iverson’s warning that, once leaders have adopted the course of participation, they must discipline themselves to stay on it. He warns managers who deviate from the path they have set that they risk creating mistrust. In the current business environment, Iverson is a managerial maverick in that he constantly thinks long term: “Can we expect employees to be loyal and motivated if we lay them off at every dip in the economy, while we go on padding our own pockets?”

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