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Lessons from the Great American Leaders & How They Apply Now

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“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.

Related:

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

References:

  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

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The Dynamic Nature of Credibility

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Ross Perot

When leaders are selected to lead, a reservoir of trust, confidence and credibility is automatically established, similar to an opening balance when one creates a bank account. The factors that contribute to this include:

Expectations

Prior to their selection of a leader, boards of directors or selection committees will establish a series of expectations that will be used during the evaluation process to filter the appropriate candidates and select the one who is determined to be the best.

Therefore, leaders are selected to meet the expectations of the board and investors and to fulfill specific goals and objectives. At the CEO level, these may include such things as producing growth, entering into new markets and increasing profitability, etc.

Related: Six Ways to Enhance Your Personal Credibility

Credibility

Leaders will normally undergo a selection process that establishes their initial level of credibility. The evaluation process will review the following:

Personal Credibility

Assesses individual reputation and trustworthiness.

Professional Credibility

Assesses the individual’s abilities, skills and capabilities to perform the job and to meet expectations.

Competence

Assesses the individual’s competence and evaluates past performance.

Outcomes and Results

Assesses the track record and the professional accomplishments of the individual.

If individuals are promoted from within an organization, they will have an established base of credibility in these four areas that are readily verified. They also may have established it with one or more of the company’s key constituencies.

This will vary by the previous exposure individuals may have had with these groups. Otherwise, credibility is established through the selection process including interviews, performance reviews and reference checks.

Related: Six Ways to Enhance Your Personal Credibility

Confidence

Initial levels of confidence are rooted in the beliefs of the board or selection committee that the individual possesses the capabilities and experience to meet their expectations. The authority granted to leaders is affirmed by these three factors.

At this point, the only basis of their legitimacy is the authority conferred upon them. They may have initial levels of validity, based upon reputation and past performance, but to the core constituencies, the leader must verify that validity in their minds.

After the selection process, their levels of validity, confidence and credibility will either rise or fall. This is based upon the same four factors used by a selection committee, including:

  • Personal Credibility
  • Professional Credibility
  • Competence
  • Outcomes and Results

Unlike the selection process, the key constituencies will continually use these criteria to gauge leaders’ performance as long as their tenure continues in the company. The research demonstrates that positive performance in each of these areas will generate specific levels of trust, confidence and loyalty, which enable leaders to establish emotional connections and standing with them.

Analysis of the great leaders validates that credibility is not static. Levels rose and fell as circumstances changed. This doesn’t mean the leaders were not credible or couldn’t be trusted. It revealed that only degrees of confidence varied with key constituencies at any single point in time.

The research illustrated that the emotional bonds and standing established by leaders appeared to carry more weight over the long term. This allowed them to maintain their credibility during difficult periods. When these occurred, their constituencies were willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. This validates the clear correlation between credibility and emotional support when it is most needed. As was previously noted, elevated and sustained levels of credibility generate strong bonds of loyalty.

Conversely, the research showed that key constituencies often abandon leaders with poor or diminishing levels of credibility. Major missteps or unethical actions and inept decision-making erode credibility to the point where some leaders never recover. This is exemplified by traumatic events such as restructurings, major layoffs, organizational chaos, or strikes.

In some cases a leader’s validity and legitimacy may be completely lost. Carly Fiorina (Hewlett Packard) experienced this after her failed attempts to radically change her company’s culture. In her case, she had developed problems within all four categories. This resulted in the loss of emotional standing with all her key constituencies. It destroyed her validity to lead. In the end, we all heard of the widely publicized loss of her position as CEO of Hewlett Packard.

Many corporate leaders fail to understand the holistic impact their actions and decisions have upon personal credibility and levels of trust with key constituencies. They also often fail to understand the synergy and bonds of emotional connection and standing within these groups, and the importance to keep them in balance. As previously mentioned, any imbalance will generate additional credibility problems and trust-related issues.

Ross Perot achieved high levels of credibility with the public when he staged a daring rescue of his employees from Iran, during the Islamic Revolution in 1979. It was further enhanced when he ran for President in 1992. He had a number of nationally televised events, where he presented his solutions for solving the nation’s problems.

However, on the night of the election, he quickly destroyed his credibility by making light of his efforts, leaving many who voted for him feeling betrayed. While much of the public initially viewed him as a credible leader, he failed to show his concern and appreciation after the election. This caused many of his supporters to feel used, leaving them disenchanted. After this episode, he never again achieved the levels of prominence in the minds of his supporters he once had.

Related: “Leaders Should Set a Clear and Decisive Tone at the Top”

For more information on this topic, refer to Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It by Timothy F. Bednarz (Majorium Business Press, Stevens Point, WI 2011).

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

Success is the Sum of Details

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Harvey Firestone - Firestone Tire

Harvey Firestone (Firestone Tire) stated, “success is the sum of details.” The great leaders uniformly paid extraordinary close attention to details. Throughout this book it is frequently referenced, since 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.”

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.”

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.” 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]  Maury Klein, The Change Makers (Henry Holt and Company, LLC, New York, NY 2003) p. 106-107

[2]  Casson Herbert N., The History of the Telephone. Chapter II (February 1, 1997)

[3]  Pierre S. du Pont: 1915 (www2.dupont.com)

[4]  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, 2011)

If you would like to learn more about how the great American leaders attention to details to build plans and blueprints and formulate strategies for their business, refer to Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It. It illustrates how great leaders built great companies, and how you can apply the strategies, concepts and techniques that they pioneered to improve your own leadership skills.Click here to learn more.

Copyright © 2011 Timothy F. Bednarz, All Rights Reserved

Research Executive Summary – What Makes Leaders Great

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The following executive summary details the findings of my extensive research of 160 great and influential leaders, spanning 235 years.

The premise of my research is that in order to understand what defines effective leadership, one must study the actions and behaviors of the great leaders. If one examines this premise, then several questions become readily obvious:

  • How did some individuals earn the mantle of greatness?
  • What defines them as great, and what were they able to achieve that others did not?
  • What lessons can be learned and applied from the examples they provide?

My research and analysis aims to answer these questions, and specifically defines and focuses on the key reasons why specific individuals are considered great leaders, including:

  • They acquired legitimacy by establishing trust, credibility, respect and emotional bonds and standing with all of their key constituencies.
  • They were selfless, placing the needs of others before themselves.
  • They epitomized courage, competence and candor.
  • They consistently reflected their personal values of humility, empathy and humanity.
  • A prolonged period of adversity, disappointment, discouragement and failure early in their careers, defined their character, shaped their vision and values, refined their critical thinking and established their legitimacy as a leader.
  • They were able to identify and take advantage of major economic shifts to fuel the growth of their company into a dominant market leader.
  • They acquired the right skills and abilities to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them.
  • They were master architects and builders, immersing themselves in the details of their business.
  • They were practitioners of ruthless efficiency, improving the customer’s experience while driving down costs and increasing profit through market growth.
  • They exhibited the talent to execute and get things done, while acquiring a passion and zeal for the execution of their plans and strategies.
  • They exhibited proficiency as consummate masters of marketing and building emotional connections to their brands.
  • Many created a demand for their products and a market where none existed before.
  • They built high performing organizations by focusing on attracting the right people to their companies, and utilizing their individual strengths by placing them in the right jobs.
  • They exhibited the intellectual honesty to completely comprehend the reality surrounding their circumstances, employing a factual approach to decision-making, objectivity and open-mindedness.
  • They generated enduring organizational values that mirrored their personal attitudes, values, thinking and work ethics.
  • They generated stellar and balanced financial performance due to a long-term, strategic perspective, rather than through focusing on short-term profitability and shareholder-value.

SPECIFIC FINDINGS

Vision

The great leaders created strong, simple and deep visions that defined their purpose, shaped their thinking, and influenced their decisions.

  • They defined their major purpose in life, and staked their existence on achieving it.
  • They cultivated a strong, enduring and lifelong vision of where they wanted to go and what they wished to achieve.
  • They kept their eye on the ball through a sustained long-term focus.
  • They generated a mission focus, clearly specifying what they wanted to achieve.
  • They effectively prioritized to keep their organizations focused on what was important for accomplishing their vision and mission.

Values

The great leaders generated enduring organizational values that mirrored their personal attitudes, values, thinking and work ethics.

  • They acquired a deep sense of integrity and courage of their personal convictions.
  • They exhibited a strong moral compass, guided by deeply held religious values.
  • They developed and relied on a strong internal compass, incorporating it into their beliefs, guiding principles and core values.
  • They displayed unwavering principles and uncompromising ethical standards.
  • They possessed a deep personal sense of responsibility toward others.
  • They assumed a universal servant mentality, which was derived from personal empathy and humility.

Crucible

The great leaders experienced a prolonged period of adversity, disappointment, discouragement and failure early in their careers, which ultimately defined their character, refined their critical thinking and established their legitimacy as a leader.

Emerging Markets

The great leaders identified emerging market opportunities and trends that offered tremendous advantages.

  • They became market leaders in emerging markets.
  • They experienced tremendous levels of growth, fueled by dramatic expansions in their external markets.
  • The tremendous levels of growth allowed them to dominate their markets and industries.

Business Creation

The great leaders capitalized upon the opportunities presented to them.

  • They utilized the process of business creation and development to build a sound foundation for generating sustained profitability.
  •  They exhibited high degrees of confidence in themselves, and in their own ideas.
  • They boasted a strong sense of intuition, supported by wisdom and common sense.
  • They acquired accurate and circumspective thinking skills.
  • They persisted, refused to quit or accept defeat, fueled by their determination and resolve.

Capabilities

The great leaders acquired the right skills and abilities to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them.

  • They exemplified visionary thinking, anticipating the future with an acute sense of clairvoyance.
  • They embraced change to capitalize on new and emerging markets.
  • They perceived failure as a learning experience rather than as a defining event.
  • They used their failures to channel their thinking into a more fruitful direction.
  • They viewed mistakes and failure as an acceptable part of innovation.

Attention to Details

The great leaders conscientiously focused and immersed themselves in details.

  • They investigated new possibilities as imaginative, curious and investigative thinkers.
  • They employed thorough and adequate preparation.
  • They personally prepared themselves through in-depth study and analysis.
  • They accumulated a mastery of knowledge and expertise as life-long learners.

Intellectual Honesty

The great leaders carefully calculated the gains and consequences of their decisions so as not to place themselves or their companies in jeopardy.

  • They exhibited a sense of intellectual honesty for completely comprehending the reality surrounding their circumstances.
  • They employed a factual approach to decision-making, being objective and open-minded.
  • They permitted their actions and decisions to be challenged, while also challenging others’ thinking, perspectives and points of view.

Architects of Growth

The great leaders were architects and builders of growth.

  • They created detailed blueprints.
  • They forged building blocks of growth.
  • They fostered growth.
  • They built and grew their companies.

Ruthless Efficiency

The great leaders effectively practiced the concept of “ruthless efficiency.”

  • They improved the quality of their product.
  • They improved their customer experiences by building products faster and cheaper.
  • They did everything possible to drive down all associated costs.
  • They built and sustained profitability by increasing sales volumes.

Execution

The great leaders were masters of execution.

  • They acquired a passion and zeal for execution of their plans and strategies.
  • They exhibited the talent to execute and get things done.
  • They kept their finger on the pulse of their business.
  • They effectively linked structure to their actions.
  • They manifested a depth of personal commitment to execution.

Right People

The great leaders built high-performing organizations by focusing on attracting the right people to their companies, and utilizing their strengths by placing them in the right jobs.

  • They respected their employees as being valuable assets.
  • They recognized that their companies were comprised of people and not faceless assets.
  • They harnessed the organizational power of their people.
  • They empowered, motivated and inspired their employees through delegation and team building, and creating a supportive environment.
  • They exhibited the ability to effectively communicate sweeping strategies.

Marketing

The great leaders exhibited proficiency as consummate masters of marketing.

  • They built emotional connections to their brands.
  • They created a demand for product and a market for their products where none existed before.
  • They established the infrastructure to support innovation.

Organizational Reputation

The great leaders produced a strong organizational reputation that became a projection of their attitudes, values, decisions and actions.

Financial Performance

The great leaders generated stellar and balanced financial performance due to a long-term perspective, rather than by focusing on short-term profitability and shareholder-value.

  • They concentrated on their customers, not on creating wealth and developing shareholder value, considering both of these to be outcomes, not a primary driving force.
  • They leveraged resources to drive down costs.
  • They maintained a strategic focus on long-term growth to sustain their business.
  • They simplified their organization’s business process.
  • They acquired the operational savvy to deliver on quality financial goals.
  • They viewed value creation as a measurement tool, consistent with their vision and values.
  • They perceived wealth creation as a consequence of their strong vision and subsequent focus.

SUMMARY

The findings of my research substantiates that effective leadership does matter. Great leaders have a strong enduring influence and impact upon the performance of their companies. Unless their vision, values and practices are continued by their successors, the performance of their organization vastly diminishes after their retirement or departure.

Adapted from Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It (Majorium Business Press, 2011)

If you would like to learn more about how the great American leaders built great companies through their own inspiring words and stories, refer to Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It. It illustrates how great leaders built great companies, and how you can apply the strategies, concepts and techniques that they pioneered to improve your own leadership skills. Click here to learn more.

Copyright © 2011 Timothy F. Bednarz, All Rights Reserved

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