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  • Writer's pictureRobert Hargrove

Help Wanted! Leaders Crazy Enough To Think They Can Change The World

Why do we admire great leaders who don’t fit the mold, but only hire mediocre leaders that do?

Ulysses S. Grant, George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Jack Welch, Steve Jobs. I just have two sentences worth of advice for Republican and Democratic PACS, Corporate boards, Headhunters, HR managers or anyone else involved in selecting the next leader for one of our fine institutions. Stop looking for job candidates who fit the mold of social convention, start looking for candidates who totally break the mold. Otherwise your world, your country, or your business is going to be in for a lot of trouble.

If you read about the candidates in the run off for the 2016 Presidential race, all the candidates -- Democrat or Republican -- very much fit the same mold. First they are much better at communicating their ambition to be president than they are in giving reasons why we should make them President. Second, they are highly reluctant to take stands on issues that could turn away votes. That’s in part why Marco Rubio of Florida is now against immigration after he was previously for it. As CEO Whisperer for many years, I would say that most in business come stamped from the same mold as well. They are usually more obsessed with being CEO than they are with creating a company that matters, and they seldom take stands on issues.

Great leaders push the human race forward. Maybe they have to be crazy. -Jack Kerouac (pictured above)

A Tale of Two presidents. John F. Kennedy was a President who fit the mold in many ways. He was young, handsome, charismatic, a War hero, Harvard graduate, a once and future king with a Camelot-like inner circle of advisers, and a family that reminded people of royalty. He inspired a generation of Americans with his Inaugural speech by saying the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, and ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. Immensely popular, when Kennedy would travel, a million people would gather, and when the motor cade passed by, the people standing on the packed sidewalks would shriek and surge toward him. Yet Kennedy in his 1000 days had no lasting foreign policy achievements, no legislative victories, and a pile of mistakes including the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Lyndon Johnson, by contrast, who took over for JFK, was a candidate that did not fit the mold at all. He was neither young, handsome, charismatic, well educated, and he spoke with a hillbilly accent. He was ambitious, vulgar, vindictive, deceitful, boorish, humorless, and driven to rages. Elected Majority leader in 1951, his strength was that he had proven to be “master of the senate,” knowing how to use carrots and sticks, and the Senate’s arcane rules to get things done. The Kennedys didn’t appreciate this or utilize it to drive their legislative agenda, as Johnson didn’t fit their mold.

Where John Kennedy could use his eloquence to make men think differently, Lyndon Johnson's hammer blows could make them act. While Johnson lost the trust of the American people during the Vietnam War, many argue that he was one of our greatest Presidents due to his legislative achievements. He had a very clear goal, which was to do more for the ordinary American than “him,” his political idol FDR. It is hard to imagine that without Lyndon Johnson, there would be no Civil Rights Act, No Voting Rights Act, No Medicare, No College Loan program. To get his bills passed, he would place midnight phone calls to Congressman, and track people down in their Senate offices, bars, and bedrooms.

Here's to the crazy ones. . . . The misfits . . . The rebels. . . . The trouble makers ... The round pegs in the square holes.

I am always fascinated to by the fact that when people talk about great CEOs, they always refer to leaders who break the mold, like Jack of GE (Neutron Jack), Steve Jobs of Apple (Enfant Terrible), Elon Musk of Tesla and Space Ex (the egomaniac). Yet when companies look to hire leaders, they look for people who are exactly the opposite. As a result, they often get CEO succession completely wrong and wind up with leaders who fit the mold like Mark Hurd of HP, Don Thompson of MacDonald’s, Franz Van Houton of Phillips.

Instead of hiring the crazy ones, the Political Action Committees PACS, Headhunters, and HR tend to screen for people with the right pedigree -- a stint at Harvard, or Stanford, or West Point, the right resume of big or important jobs, the right profile matched to a corporate homogenized leadership competency list. For example: 1) Visionary leader, 2) Strategic Thinker, 3) Communicates well, 4) shares well with others.

Yet the one thing that people who put these lists together often forget is that greatness, what Martin Heidegger called, “a way of being,” radiates from a person’s core, a Missing x factor that cannot always be translated to a set of competencies. It radiates from the inside out. President Richard Nixon was in awe of French President Charles de Gaulle, instantly conveyed to those who met him “grandeur, greatness, and the glory of France." Yet, de Gaulle was a man who had been a soldier all his life, had few of the competencies needed to be President.

Charles de Gaulle had a firm belief about great leaders having a single characteristic that represented their whole way of being. . . . . “Nothing great will ever be achieved without great men, and men are great only if they are determined to be so.” It was their determination to change the world, de Gaulle believed, that altered their way of being and caused them to set high goals in services of higher purposes, and that also drove them through difficult patches so they could realize their potentialities.

These words from Charles de Gaulle reminded me of Steven Jobs, the man who was determined to change the world with the personal computer. It was Jobs' determination to change world that made him who we was, and this permeated all his actions, not a mere set of competencies that were drummed up in the manner of dissecting a frog to find out the secret of life. This came through in everything he said and did.

“We are inventing the future,” [Jobs told a job applicant]. “Think about surfing on the front edge of a wave. It’s really exhilarating. Now think about dog-paddling at the tail end of that wave. It wouldn’t be anywhere near as much fun. Come down here and make a dent in the universe.”

Here’s to the ones who dream bigger, who re-imagine the everyday, who disrupt the status quo.

A Tale of Two CEOs. Alan G. Lafley, the legendary CEO of P&G, has a secret fear. He doesn’t want people to think he’s plain vanilla, so he often drives to work on a motor cycle, wearing a bomber jacket. True, he’s very polite and soft spoken, went to Harvard Business School, served in the Navy, but beyond these externalities that make it look like he fits the mold, he is an excellent example of a transformational leader who breaks the mold in many respects.

When he took over the company, it was on a sharp downward spiral that showed up as its stock falling off the shelf, customers jumping ship, and many asking if P&G still mattered. His goal was to transform the company by reminding people the customer is boss, and through focusing on innovation. He wound up creating 12 $billion businesses, and doubling the company’s market value to $85 billion. While he pulled off the transformational deal of the century by buying Gillette, he said, “Organic growth is more valuable because it comes from your core competencies. Organic growth exercises your innovation muscle. It is a muscle. If you use it, it gets stronger.”

A.G., as he is called, didn’t just sit in the CEO's big office and delegate innovating new products to army of assistants. He would visit customers on every business trip, spending big chunks of time. He would introduce himself as Alan George of P&G consumer affairs, and chat with customers for hours in the mop aisle of the supermarket, or in their homes standing by their washing machines as they washed their clothes. On one of these occasions, a housewife told him she liked washing the floor, but didn’t like getting the floor wet. This resulted in inventing the Swiffer, which transformed a ten dollar mop into a $35 consumable product. Today it’s a billion dollar business.

Why the customer visits? "You develop a feel. You become more of an anthropologist, because you can’t understand the language. Your power is observation and listening. Your ability to read nonverbal cues gets a lot better. Seeing the subtle things enhances your capability to read, understand, and react.” For example, on another occasion he hand carried a box of new Tide into the customer’s house and asked her to use it. He noticed that she went to the kitchen to get a steak knife to open it. He asked her why do you need a steak knife? She didn’t want to break her nails. Needless to say Lafley went back and had the box redesigned, then delivered a truckload of new Tide to the house. Why the customer visits? 

Lafley says as a leader he has learned more from his failures as a leader than his successes. They were all part of my growth and development. We learned much more from failed new brands and products, like Dryer at-home dry cleaning and Fit Fruit & Vegetable Wash than we did from huge successes like Febreze and Swiffer.

When Lafley took over as CEO in 2000, it was an emergency situation, as the previous CEO had suddenly just quit. Lafley decided to make leadership and succession planning a strategy at P&G. As far as creating a successor, however Lafley fell into the same trap as everybody else, and came up with a great list of leadership competencies based on seven competencies that represented the perfect leadership mold. 1) Character values and integrity, 2) Inspiring courageous and compassionate, 3 Visionary and strategic leader, 4) team builder and collaborative, 5) Embraces change, Leads transformational change, 6) High energy and endurance, 7) Calm, cool ,resilient under pressure.

The Lafley and his board chose Bob McDonald. P&Gs new CEO, McDonald was a company veteran who was also a West Point grad. He seemed a perfect fit for the leadership mold that had developed based on 7 competencies. Yet he lacked the missing X factor that his predecessor had in spades. He wasn’t one of “the crazy ones,” a CEO and cultural anthropologist rolled into one while he believed in centric innovation. I am not sure how much time he spent chatting with customers in the mop aisle or in the laundry room of their homes. While he believed that the purpose of P&G designers was to help customers lead better every day lives, he didn’t sit on brainstorming sessions, or sheppard new products through the P&G bureaucracy.

In the end, this translated into less than expected total return to shareholders, which caught the ire of activist investors. McDonald, a 30 year veteran was fired and Lafley was asked to return. Over the next few years, I am sue he will spend many hours reflecting on the difference between choosing leaders that fit the mold, and choosing leaders who break it. I am sure you and I will as well.

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