Leaders to Leader

Lessons from the Great American Leaders & How They Apply Now

Posts Tagged ‘insights

The Capacity to Face Reality

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Intellectual honesty is strongly interrelated to management style. It is framed by the capacity to face the realities confronting leaders, their willingness to have their thinking challenged by advisors and to seek out and consider opinions, even if they may not agree with them.

The following example demonstrates how Michael Dell (Dell Computer) exemplifies this ability. His “ability to call in experienced corporate talent, coupled with Dell’s own lack of corporate experience, has imbued his company with a unique competence–the ability to fail well. When the company hit its first roadblock (a net income decline in 1993 of more than $100 million),

Dell called Bain for counsel… by then-consultant Kevin Rollins. ‘Michael said, ‘I want you to tell me what’s wrong with my company, and fix it at the same time,’ recounts Rollins. ‘I told him that we generally diagnose the problems first, then afterward figure out a solution and then go and implement it. He said, ‘No, do those concurrently.’ So we did, and that started Dell Time, where a quarter is a year in most people’s lives.’”

Related: The Productive Response to Failure

It should be noted that intellectual honesty also incorporates a healthy dose of curiosity that leads to in-depth questioning and insights. After the Second World War, William Blackie (Caterpillar) didn’t like to “make his decisions in some comfortable office. He went out in the field to see for himself and advised others to do the same… Seeing the changes and their effects creates more conviction than being told about it or reading about it.”[1]

Blackie’s own intellectual honesty created the same expectations he demanded from his employees were contributing factors in the growth of Caterpillar during the post World War II period.
Intellectual honesty applies to all company-related aspects, but equally important it also applies to leaders, as they assess their own abilities, behaviors and decisions.

Related: Mistakes as a Source of Innovation

Kemmons Wilson (Holiday Inn) typifies this. “Knowing his strengths and weaknesses is one of Kemmons’ strongest characteristics. He freely admits that he did not have a good education. But he makes up for it by positioning the right people around him.”[2]

The degree of intellectual honesty will directly affect a leader’s critical thinking and decision-making abilities. Key constituencies may question a leader’s professional credibility if he or she refuses to face the facts surrounding a problem or issue and chooses a course of action that may be considered harmful. The same is true if a leader makes a decision and refuses to be challenged. This creates doubts, fosters distrust and leads to a loss of confidence.

My research disclosed that intellectual honesty appeared to be absent in poorer performing leaders, and those whose companies experienced the most problems. These leaders failed to posses the ability to face reality. They refused to be personally challenged and stopped listening to trusted advisors.

In most cases, these leaders were insolated and displayed an intensity of intellectual arrogance and hubris. Thinking they knew more that their constituencies, they quickly alienated them, and often put their companies in jeopardy.

Al Dunlap (Sunbeam) displayed these tendencies throughout his career. “He [Al Dunlap] is utterly convinced of his own greatness, and wholly uninterested in anything that doesn’t further his own self-aggrandizement. The portrait he paints of himself is that of a man who has never made a mistake and has never had a second thought about anything, and whose life has been little more than a series of ever-greater triumphs. He is always ready to tear down someone, especially when he can make himself look good by comparison.” [3]

In addition to Dunlap, three notable examples of this include Robert Allen (AT&T), John Akers (IBM) and Roger Smith (General Motors). In each instance, personal pride and ego prevented them from being intellectually honest about the problems facing their companies. They refused to listen to trusted advisors. They created a series of cascading problems that negatively impacted the company’s performance and further exasperated their difficulties.

My research illustrates instance after instance where great leaders faced problems, were intellectually honest with themselves and others, and established a tone that became the hallmarks of their companies.

Related: Six Ways to Enhance Your Personal Credibility

In 1986, during a second Tylenol crisis, James Burke (Johnson & Johnson) “looked facts in the face. [He] understood the gravity of the situation… partnered with the government and media. When a reporter asked why it happened, Burke responded with crystal clarity and honesty.” [4]

When Cisco company went into a freefall after the markets collapsed in 2001, John Chamber quickly analyzed the problem without affixing blame, determined its seriousness, took harsh and necessary actions to get through it and then prepared for an economic recovery.

“Sam Palmisano, CEO of IBM… said, “John kept the company focused. He said this is where we are, and he drove the company forward… He never dwelled on it.’”

The great leaders allowed their judgments and decisions to be challenged. They encouraged vigorous debate within their organizations. They were willing to seek out expertise to solve problems, even if it was contrary to their own thinking, feelings and intuition. They were open minded and displayed sound judgment when making decisions and evaluating risk.

Prior to taking decisive action during the Tylenol crisis, James Burke (Johnson & Johnson) heard and considered contrary opinions from his advisors, legal counsel and the government not to the take the actions that ultimately vindicated his company. After carefully considering their advice, he decided to adhere to the company’s credo that “proclaimed that J&J’s “first responsibility” was to its customers and then to employees, management, communities, and stockholders-in that order.”

These leaders encouraged the same behaviors in their managers, which drove similar attitudes, skills and abilities deep into the fabric of the organizational culture. In doing so they empowered their employees and created a collaborative environment. This, in turn, fostered innovation and increased their competitive advantage.

Arthur Blank (Home Depot) observed, “Sometimes in business you have to put management in the back seat and let associates take the wheel. At Home Depot, most of our best ideas came from our sales associates. Some of the ideas were brilliant – some were risky…”

Henry Kaiser (Kaiser) and Stephen Bechtel (Bechtel Corporation) fostered high levels of intellectual honesty and collaboration due the size and scope of the production projects their companies worked on. This included the massive shipbuilding yards Kaiser built during the Second World War and the building of the Hoover Dam, that both men participated in. They would not have been able to succeed and grow without it.

Related: The Importance of Intellectual Honesty

For more information on this topic and to read a free chapter, 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).


  1. Schleier, Curt, William Blackie Put Caterpillar on An Upward (Investor’s Business Daily) February 2, 2002
  2. Success Secrets of Memphis’ Most Prolific Entrepreneur (Business Perspectives) July 1, 1997
  3. Nocera, Joseph, Confessions of a Corporate Killer (Fortune Magazine) September 30, 1996
  4. Kwoh, Leslie, Business Historian Richard Tedlow Discusses Dealing with Denial (The Star-Ledger) January 28, 2010

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

Interaction is a Necessary Component of a Vibrant Workplace

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Astute leaders guide and direct from the front lines of the company. Leaders are continually present and interacting with their employees in order to see what is slowly transforming and changing and what is causing unit frustrations. Frontline guiding and directing is a necessary process enabling leaders to apply their abilities to moving the organization forward.

There is a critical difference between the roles of a manager and a leader. While many managers are considered leaders, some not totally committed to sound leadership principles choose to direct from behind their desks. This results in relinquishing the advantage gained by immediate, firsthand knowledge of their organization’s daily activities, progress or frustrating hindrances.

Related: Four Primary Leadership Roles and Responsibilities

Ongoing interaction with employees is the active practice of visible leadership. Leaders cannot lead from their office. They must continually be in the midst of their employees, seeing for themselves what is happening and what is holding their unit back.

Frontline guiding and directing is a critical concept for leaders to understand and apply. In order for employees to be comfortable with change and transformation within their organization and the constant risk taking that goes with it, leaders must be ever present to train, direct, and reassure each individual member. They must be there to cheer every accomplishment, no matter how small. This can only be done successfully when leaders are continually involved in their employees’ daily activities.

Practical leadership demands that leaders have an active, ongoing presence within their organizational units. This presence creates a visible strength achieved through openly and consistently interacting with all employees. When leaders develop an interactive presence and work to achieve active visibility, they have the ability to fully apply their leadership skills and capabilities. Effective interaction allows leaders to:

Understand Frustrations

Only when leaders are constantly interacting with their employees can they fully understand the daily frustrations they are experiencing individually and as a group. While often minor, these frustrations serve as mini-barriers to productivity and efficiency.

Frustrations are often not known about unless a leader takes the time to observe what is actually occurring. They may be considered minor parts of the work process that employees fail to mention due to their insignificance. However, when considered collectively and cumulatively, smaller frustrations have the power to hemorrhage an organization’s productivity.

Related: The Value of Personal Experience and Expertise

Observe Firsthand What Is Occurring

Reports and meetings cannot take the place of the leader personally observing what is happening within their division or unit. A casual walkthrough does not provide sufficient opportunity to clearly observe and internalize what is actually occurring at any one point in time.

Close observation allows leaders to identify certain occurrences that produce either a positive or negative impact upon the organization. Only when leaders practice visible leadership and openly interact with their employees will a true picture of the organizational unit’s overall progression and advancement emerge. Without this firsthand insight and knowledge, leaders cannot effectually move any part of their organization forward.

Encourage Open Communication

Visible leadership and open interactivity brings leaders out of their comfort zones and away from their desks. Being an interactive leader puts them on an equal plane with their employees, which makes them much more accessible and approachable. When this occurs, employees feel more comfortable to talk about frustrations, concerns, problems and issues that may not otherwise be disclosed. This open communication directly drives the free-flow of knowledge and information that leaders need to be successful.

Related: Encourage Questions to Improve Open Communication

Provide Insight into Solutions

When leaders become fully interactive, and observe and communicate with their employees, they gain insights into existing problems. Leaders use these insights to much more easily reach solutions to the immediate and pressing problems facing their employees. Minor frustrations are quickly remedied and eliminated to minimize productivity losses.

Change transformations in any organization entail countless daily decisions. Open interaction facilitates the decision making process by encouraging employees to make cooperative or independent judgments in the name of reaching objectives and eliminating needless frustrations.

Provide Insights into Problems and Opportunities

Leaders typically have the advantage of the “macro view” of their organization. Sometimes they are focused on this larger picture to the extent that they forget they can—and should—look for and watch what is actually transpiring in their front lines. While this field of vision will vary by the level occupied in the organization, leaders do have the advantage of obtaining increased knowledge through a wider perspective that is not available to their employees.

Leaders who are active and visible in their organizations have the ability to witness what is happening and can identify potential problems and opportunities because of it. Their position often allows them to act on this knowledge to either eliminate a potential problem or tap an opportunity. In either case a frontline perspective helps leaders and employees save their company money. The only sure way to accomplish any of the above is to take full advantage of applying all the available knowledge obtained from a more “micro view” of the organization.

Related: Six Critical Issues To Consider When Solving Problems

Share in Successes and Failures

An essential role for leaders is to act as a motivator and cheerleader. While corporate leaders may not like to think of themselves as cheerleaders, the meaning goes beyond the term to the bottom line. When leaders are actively present and daily interacting with and encouraging their employees, they are in the best position to motivate and inspire them to achieve beyond expectations.

As their presence creates an impact on the organizational unit, leaders are able to share in the successes and failures of their employees as they test new ideas and concepts and help their organization adapt in the face of change. Doing this creates a bond of loyalty between leaders and employees as it steadily and securely increases the organizational unit’s cohesiveness.

Related: Motivation Is More Than Money

Excerpt: Improving Workplace Interaction: Pinpoint Leadership Skill Development Training Series (Majorium Business Press, Stevens Point, WI 2011) $ 16.95 USD

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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