The two biggest leadership lessons I learned were as a result of crisis – events that changed my life, eliminated primacy in me for the most part, and helped make me who I am today. The first one I’ll share with you now. It occurred in the early summer of 1990. I was leading the Middle East operations for a Fortune 500 global manufacturing company when the first gulf war began. Now, I need to give you some background on who I was to that point, so that this story will make sense to you. I started near the bottom of this particular corporation in a job called inside sales – a nice catch-all term for office grunt. I quickly learned that the successful people in the company were those who worked hard, continuously learned, and communicated very well both with clients and with company leaders. So, I studied, worked long hours, did whatever was asked of me with enthusiasm, joined Toastmasters, and volunteered for every visible assignment. I was promoted within a year, and then roughly every 12-18 months thereafter. I doubled my income every 3-4 years, became the youngest VP in the history of the company and became part of the 1% club – those few people that were given special treatment and favor to keep us and develop our executive potential. It was a heady environment where I made a very good living, could do or go wherever I wanted and had visibility to the CEO.
I soon became known as a turn-around guy, taking over broken parts of our company and fixing them. I learned that I could influence and motivate people as long as I was clear what needed to be done, and was willing to personally be heavily involved in the process. I was doing the impossible and became known for recruiting and creating great teams. I moved my family 8 times in 16 years. But as I rose higher, I had begun to change. I started looking at others as either backs to step on to get to the top, or butts to kick out of the way – anything to win the top job. I hurt some people and I disadvantaged others. I became greedy, arrogant and aggressive. When the oil bust of the 80’s began to fade, we needed to make investments again in the Middle East and I was asked if I thought I could turn it around and make it a growth area for us. Well, of course – what a stupid question! So, I moved to S.A. and started building the business there again, making a lot of contacts and relationships among the business and country leaders in the region. And it started off great – until the first gulf war began. If you remember, it was kind of a gradual thing where Hussein amassed troops at the Kuwait border and then moved in. I was living 3 miles from Aramco’s engineering headquarters in Dharhan on the Persian Gulf side (the Saudi’s call it the Arabian Gulf) and Scud missiles were beginning to be lobbed into northern S.A. as well as Kuwait. I began evacuating all the expat people from the Middle East and I made a mistake that almost cost 4 people their lives. We had two early projects that were critical to launching our recovery in the region, and they were going very well. With their consent, I allowed two Dutch project leaders to stay on a project in Baghdad and two British engineers in Kuwait City. They got stuck behind enemy lines and were eventually captured by the Iraqis. If you remember, public executions of foreigners was happening. I was the last employee to leave the Middle East except for those 4 men. I stayed as long as I could but eventually had to leave without them. You cannot imagine the embarrassment, the frustration and the anxiety. If they died, I would have been at least partly responsible. By the grace of God we got them out through diplomatic means, but that event changed me. It put faces to the backs I had been walking on. It represented lives – not just theirs but their families. I realized at that moment, that lives were more important than business and I vowed never again to put my greed ahead of the well-being of people. I realized that I was nothing more than what my teams did each day, and that I was best served when I created a bond of mutual trust and respect and helped make them great. Like so many things in life, I discovered that the concept was simple but it was not easy to put into practice. Doing the right thing can sometimes be costly and unpopular, and it takes courage to take the risks required to do what is right. It eventually became my life’s purpose to help good people do great things. In fact, that is the tag line of AdviSoar today – helping good people do great things.
Mine is just one person’s story, and I consider myself very fortunate to have gone through that crisis. However, since that type of life change is rare, thousands of corporate executives suffer from primacy – putting themselves first, asking what’s in it for me, and seeing others not as valuable employees that they are to serve, but as resources to be used and discarded to achieve their often selfish objectives. To be fair, not every executive is in that camp, but our experience is that too many are. In Jim Collin’s book, “Good to Great”, he illustrated that the very small percentage of companies which become great, do so only when the chief executives see themselves as chief talent recruiters, developers and promoters. Ralph Nader said that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers. 100% of great corporations, according to Jim Collin’s research, would tell you that Nader is correct.