Leaders to Leader

Lessons from the Great American Leaders & How They Apply Now

“Success is the Sum of Details”

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Bill Gates, former CEO of Microsoft Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Bill Gates, former CEO of Microsoft
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Harvey Firestone (Firestone Tire) stated, “success is the sum of details.” The great leaders uniformly paid extraordinary close attention to details.

It is an important attribute or aspect of their thinking. It influenced virtually every aspect of their lives, which ranged from ruthless efficiency to product quality, to how they treated their employees. As architects of growth, their attention to detail allowed them to formulate comprehensive plans and blueprints, which supported the building and growth of their companies.

Many leaders like James J. Hill (Great Northern Railway), Sam Walton (Wal-Mart) and Robert Wood (Sears) all devoured as much data and information as they could get their hands on, to generate detailed plans and blueprints for their business, as did William Boeing (Boeing) and John Jacob Astor. Bill Gates (Microsoft) “also has incredible focus and knowledge of his industry. As Ross Perot once noted, ‘Gates is a guy who knows his product.’ ”

In addition to paying close attention to details, the great leaders developed unparalleled competence and expertise through years of experience. They all emerged from long and dark valleys of frustration, disappointment, adversity and often failure, which tested their mettle, polished their skills and competencies and generated deep levels of perseverance and resilience.

None of the great leaders surveyed ever appeared to succeed without first enduring what I call a long and frustrating “crucible period.” These experiences and the lessons gained within this “crucible period” allowed them to possess the necessary skills, experience and expertise to take advantage of opportunities presented to them. They were able to recognize them for what they were, and knew how to plan and profit from them.

A notable example is Theodore Vail (AT&T). He “left the post office service to establish the telephone business. He had been in authority over thirty-five hundred postal employees, and was the developer of a system that covered every inhabited portion of the country.

Consequently, he had a quality of experience that was immensely valuable in straightening out the tangled affairs of the telephone. Line by line, he mapped out a method, a policy, a system. He introduced a larger view of the telephone business… He persuaded half a dozen of his post office friends to buy stock, so that in less than two months the first ‘Bell Telephone Company’ was organized, with $450,000 capital and a service of twelve thousand telephones.” [1]

In 1902, one hundred years after it was founded, E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, commonly known as DuPont, was sold by the surviving partners to three of the great-grandsons of the original founder, led by Pierre du Pont. He had grown up in the family business and had developed the necessary expertise to assume control over it. He understood the associated problems, issues and weaknesses that needed to be rectified, and drafted and executed the necessary plans to transform the company.

“As chief of financial operations, Pierre du Pont oversaw the restructuring of the company along modern corporate lines. He created a centralized hierarchical management structure, developed sophisticated accounting and market forecasting techniques, and pushed for diversification and increasing emphasis on research and development.

He also introduced the principle of return on investment, a key modern management technique. From 1902 to 1914, Pierre kept a firm rein on the company’s growth, but with the onset of World War I he guided DuPont through a period of breakneck expansion financed by advance payments on Allied munitions contracts.” [2]

As a primary supplier of paints and lacquers required for automotive production, DuPont became a major investor in General Motors. Pierre DuPont replaced William Durant, the company’s founder, as CEO. DuPont made a key decision in promoting Alfred Sloan to the office of president. Sloan developed a detailed blueprint that transformed GM into the largest industrial company the world had ever known at that time.

He “created structure so people could be more creative with their time and have it be well spent. He also came up with the idea that senior executives should exercise some central control but should not interfere too much with the decision making in each operation.

It is difficult to describe many of Sloan’s ideas because most of them would seem like common concepts of a business, yet they were new and innovative at the time. Largely due to his invention, GM became the pioneer in market research, public relations and advertising. Before Sloan, people had totally different conceptions of these common parts of the American corporation.” [3]

Due to Sloan’s success, his corporate model highly influenced the development of the modern American corporation. His theories were actively practiced for over 50 years and remained unchallenged until Jack Welch’s (General Electric) influence permeated the mid-1980s.


  1. Do You Have the Talent to Execute Get Things Done?
  2. Linking Structure to Action
  3. The Value of Personal Experience and Expertise


  1. Casson Herbert N., The History of the Telephone. Chapter II (February 1, 1997)
  2. Pierre S. du Pont: 1915 (www2.dupont.com)
  3. Alfred P. Sloan, Inventor of the Modern Corporation (Invent Help Invention Newsletter, August 2004)

Excerpt: Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It (Majorium Business Press, Stevens Point, WI 2011) Read a Free Chapter

Timothy F. Bednarz, Ph.D. | Author | Publisher | Majorium Business Press
Author of Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It (Finalist – 2011 Foreword Reviews‘ Book of the Year)
Linkedin | Facebook | Twitter | Web| Blog | Catalog |800.654.4935 | 715.342.1018

Copyright © 2012 Timothy F. Bednarz, All Rights Reserved

One Response

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  1. Tim:

    To bad T. Vail is not still in charge of the postal system.

    “Attention to Detail” was one of my primary points of leadership during my high school Navy Junior ROTC (NJROTC) instructor days. I often talked about a popular commercial at the time by Nisson in which they showed a ball bearing rolling down the gap between the hood and fender of their cars. Thanks again for a great post.


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