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Return On Character

ROCBookCover

Shortly after this book is published, I will celebrate my seventy-fifth birthday. For nearly forty years, I have served as an advisor and confidant to executive leaders in both large and small organizations. Most often, my clients have been chief executive officers.

Early in this work, I was struck by how most of my clients were very principled, and yet they demonstrated so little concern for the common good. They weren’t hostile to the idea, just focused only on what was good for their specific business.

I was also surprised by how little insight most of my clients had about the real levers for creating value. The executives I advised typically undervalued methods for inspiring and energizing the workforce and overvalued strategic financial and competitive moves.

Preface, Return on Character — Fred Kiel

Leaders can have a profound impact on a community of people. This is just as true for leaders in government as it is for leaders in business. Kiel’s hope is to inspire a movement to change people’s expectations of leadership and performance in organizational life in the for-profit and nonprofit worlds.

His book is an interesting read on character-driven leadership.

As I was reading the book, I started to think about Al Dunlap, aka Chainsaw Al. I believe he reflects the opposite of character in leadership. Here are a few observations about Al Dunlap.

His career was based on one absolute: the primary purpose of business is to make money for its shareholders.

From Wikipedia:

Albert John Dunlap (born July 26, 1937) is a retired corporate executive. He was best known as a turnaround specialist and professional down-sizer. The ruthless methods he employed to streamline failing companies, most notably Scott Paper, won him the nicknames “Chainsaw Al” and “Rambo in Pinstripes”. However, his reputation was ruined after he engineered a massive accounting scandal at Sunbeam-Oster.

Dunlap believed that the primary goal of any business should be to make money for its shareholders. To that end, he believed in making widespread cuts, including massive layoffs, in order to streamline operations. By firing thousands of employees at once and closing plants and factories, he drastically altered the economic status of such corporations as Scott Paper and Crown Zellerbach. He sold Scott Paper to Kimberly-Clark in 1995 for $7.8 billion and walked away with a $100 million golden parachute.

He was considered by many to be a psychopath. He was named as one of the Top 10 Worst Bosses by Time. He made a career out of business brutality by engineering a corporate restructuring that put 35% of the workforce at Scott Paper out of a job. He wrote a best-selling book titled Mean Business.

Al Dunlap had a profoundly negative impact on the employees he led and those employees had a right to expect better from their leader. And I think Dunlap’s leadership style serves to reinforce Kiel’s key message: character-driven leadership delivers higher value to all stakeholders — and it’s the right thing to do.