You need a real leader…

Is your organization run by a real leader?

Paul H. O’Neill, former Secretary of the Treasury and Alcoa CEO, said that if everyone in an organization can answer ‘Yes’ to the following three questions then you have a real leader at the top.

  1. Are you treated with dignity and respect every day without regard to who you are or your position in the company?
  2. Are you given the things you need – education, tools, money – so that you can make a contribution to the organization that provides meaning to your life?
  3. Are you recognized for what you do?

It’s the little extras in the definition above that caught my ear as he spoke this past Tuesday (11/2/2010) at Indiana University. …Respect regardless of position. …Provides meaning to your life. …Recognition. Have you worked at such a place where these points were universally true?

“A real leader unleashes the 20% discretionary intelligence and energy of the people in in the enterprise. You can not incentivise it out of them. You can’t give them enough money to so they’ll give you the extra 20%. You can only get it by creating the conditions. […] These conditions can not exist unless there is a real leader in place,” said O’Neill.

When I asked if he had examples in the U.S. who were pursuing this effort he mentioned the Seattle based Virginia Mason Clinic. When they asked themselves about caregiving from the viewpoint of the patient, they realized things could be better. Often during a 12 hour visit for chemo half the time was spent waiting for the convenience of the caregivers. By asking themselves from a value proposition – ‘we want to make life better for our patients’ – they redesigned the process, cutting visit length in half. This happened because the CEO Gary Kaplan pursues these principles. (The center is the subject of an upcoming book by Charles Kenney, Transforming Health Care: Virginia Mason Medical Center’s Pursuit of the Perfect Patient Experience. )

The ability of leaders to drive habitual organizational excellence enabling discover and continuous improvement is a critical element In the long term health and innovative ability of a company. Examples he gave of how creating an organization based on the three principles above seemed to indicate they could be a powerful way to see relationships and organizational challenges from a completely different point of view – thereby unleashing that extra 20% every company so desperately needs.

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8 Responses to You need a real leader…

  1. Fred,

    Mutual respect is everything in a productive workplace. It is simply not possible for any enterprise to achieve its maximum potential unless managers and workers trust and respect each other.

    Back in 2004, I did some short-term work for a public sector organisation which had been besieged by problems and had its future under review. When a newspaper article surfaced in March that year about the organisation being shut down, senior management assured staff that the article had been written according to ‘baseless rumor’ and that ‘if anything is going to happen, you (the staff) will be the first to know – you will not read about it in the media.’

    Alas, three weeks later, a decision was made for our organisation to be abolished. How were we told? Not through a meeting in the board room, as had been promised, but rather through reading about it one afternoon through an online news article. Indeed, management did not convene any meeting about it at any stage. As you can imagine, none of the staff had any respect whatsoever for senior management from that time on, and the process of dissolving the organisation disintegrated into a shambles.

    On the other hand, when I was working in Korea, I was amazed at how polite the Koreans were, and about how much they respected my contribution as a teacher within their local county. Almost every time I would see him, the principal at one of the schools where I worked would say, ‘Every day, I always appreciate your teaching’, many of the Korean English teachers made frequent comment about how they felt the students enjoyed my classes, and many of my other Korean colleagues would say nice things such as ‘sugu hashosseoyo’ (you have worked hard) at the end of the day.

    It was those little things which made my time in Korea so special. Moreover, the kindness of the local people was a big factor in my decision to stay for four years rather than go home after my initial one year contract.

    • Hi Andrew, that sounds like a great experience. I remember you speaking of it. Teams from the clinic evidently have been going to Japan and working auto assembly for two weeks at a time so they can learn the culture of team and respect.

  2. J.D. Meier says:

    > habitual organizational excellence
    Excellence really does need to be a habit because the landscape is always changing, and you’re either climbing or sliding.

  3. kay plantes says:

    This blog Fred is an excellent reminder that employees are ultimately volunteers. Systems that best support them will get the best out of them. I have seen this time and again in companies. The servant leaders get levels of effort so much higher than the hierarchical leaders. It’s why “Do I trust you to have my interests in mine?” is the first question potentially followers ask? Thanks.

  4. Terry Heath says:

    I thought the Virginia Mason example was an interesting result of “unleashing that extra 20% every company so desperately needs” and it makes me wonder what might happen in my own industry, education, if teachers felt the impact of such “real leadership.” Sure it’s an overheard argument that teachers are not given respect, resources and recognition (hey – O’Neall could benefit from reducing his ideas to those three “R”s), but that might only be because it’s so true. What might happen if teachers were given these fairly inexpensive things? Perhaps, more learning would happen because teachers felt the extra effort was worth it?

    • Hi Terry, interesting thoughts. Change is always uncomfortable, and when you combine the need to change with the current environment of finger pointing people tend to entrench rather than open up. There are so many good people in education and the real problems go so far beyond classroom walls that I can’t help bit believe it could be a powerful exercise. Nice to see you’re blogging again. I really enjoy your writing.