Let’s be very clear about what I mean when I say “leader.” A leader isn’t necessarily the person at the top of the organization—that’s the authority. There are plenty of people who run an organization who are not leaders. And there are plenty of people in the middle or lower levels of the organization who absolutely are leaders.
I think there’s a very clear anthropological definition of what a leader is: a person who’s willing to put the interests of others before their own. When you look at some of these early homo sapiens tribes, among the criteria that produced the alpha, or leader, was a commitment to the well-being of the group. When we feel safe amongst our own, we’re much more willing to commit our energy and our skills to the good of the group.
It’s exactly the same in the modern business world. When we fear our colleagues or don’t trust our authority figures, we have no choice but to redirect our time and energy towards protecting ourselves and our interests.
What does this type of leadership look like on a larger scale?
Leaders would sacrifice the numbers to save the people—and not vice versa. For example, Barry-Wehmiller Companies Inc. in St. Louis is a large global manufacturing company with about 7,400 employees. In 2008, when the economy hit the skids, they lost about 30% of their orders, and were considering layoffs.
But the CEO, Bob Chapman, absolutely refused. Instead, they implemented a furlough program. Every employee had to take four weeks of unpaid vacation whenever they wanted, and it didn’t have to be consecutive. Mr. Chapman said it was better that they should all suffer a little than some of them suffer a lot. And morale skyrocketed.
Did their numbers recover?
The company needed to save $10 million, and they saved $20 million—much better than they expected. The company continues to grow an average of 18% year-over-year as it has for the past 20 years. And it’s impossible to steal their employees.