A Lesson From Abroad

First appeared in ‘E.S.A.E.’ (Europe)

There is one aspect of leadership that rarely gets mentioned, yet it is vital to the success a leader has in building relationships-symbolic acts. Each and every action leaders carry out has an effect on their team. And actions often do speak louder than words.

Great leaders have stories, legends, even myths told about them. These tales may be totally true, based on some truth, or may be purely be wishful thinking, but in some ways it doesn’t really matter. They inspire people. If you’re a leader of a major organization, you need to be noticed.

You have to be charismatic to lead your staff, so they will want to tell stories about you.

Take the example of a British CEO who took charge of a confectionery company, which was in serious financial difficulty. His first act was to cut the tails of the sugar mice. What an incredible symbolic act. With one gesture he demonstrated the ruthlessness he would show to turn the company around.

Then, there’s the story of Michael Grade, then controller of BBC One-now Director-General. He was visiting the news department one day where they were short- staffed. He acted as a junior researcher and covered a shipwreck story. People at BBC still talk about that today.

Another example is from an internal memo issued in Microsoft Germany. Most German industries operated in a very formal manner. This memo, on the instructions of Bill Gates, told staff to use the informal German word for you Du instead of the more formal Sie. This very small act was highly significant for motivating the staff and encouraging them to recognize a new way of working.

On the more serious side, there are a number of acts that organizations make in times of crisis that allow them to stand out from the crowd. In Liverpool, England during World War I, the Littlewoods, the largest family-owned business in Great Britain, sent each employee who was called up to fight a personal letter guaranteeing them a job upon their return. These letters became legendary.

During the Depression, Levi-Strauss CEO Walter Haas kept employees working when there was no meaningful work for them to do. Malden Mills Chief Aaron Feuerstein continued to pay the 2,400 employees after a devastating fire that practically ruined the business. None of these people legally had to do this. It was just the right thing to do.

These instances tell us so much about these people and their values. Often in organizations it’s individuals who make the difference. Their values permeate the company, and their acts say more than a hundred mission statements ever could. These stories are inspirational to the people who work in these organizations. They take business out of the faceless, nine to five, daily grind that it is more often than not. It gives people something to be proud of.


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