Leadership Year in Review: It wasn't all bad

January 27, 2015 Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions

Looking back on 2014, you might be convinced that it was a bad year for leaders. Reading the headlines generated by leaders in all walks of life, it’s easy to come to that conclusion.

Consider the racist rants from former LA Clipper owner Donald Sterling, or Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s slow descent into personal and political hell, or the  sexual antics of American Apparel CEO Dov Charney, caught on video nearly naked and out of control.

We also had stories about Gregg Steinhafel, former CEO of Target, who was ousted after the company’s lagging performance and an online security breach. And GM’s Mary Barra, who faced a challenging six months due to safety issues brought on by faulty ignition switches and what appeared to be a corporate campaign to cover up the dangerous inadequacies in some of the company’s vehicles.

In reviewing my blogs and articles from the past year, however, I also uncovered a trove of good news stories about leaders. These stories about courage, dedication, respect and great vision show that there are many good leaders out there, even if they don’t receive the same level of intense scrutiny and attention that bad leaders seem to garner.

So, in the spirit of awards season, here are my best leadership stories of 2014:

Earning trust and loyalty the old fashioned way: It’s hard to imagine a CEO more loved by his employees than Arthur T. Demoulas of Market Basket, an iconic, 71-store chain of New England grocery stores.

In early August, several hundred workers at family-owned Market Basket walked off their jobs in protest after Demoulas was ousted in a power struggle involving other family members. Thousands more employees attended rallies and protests to demand Arthur T’s return to the helm of the chain.

How did Arthur T. Demoulas become so popular? In addition to earning a reputation as a fair-minded CEO, Demoulas insisted his employees be paid 20 to 30 per cent more than industry rates. And he spearheaded a 100-per-cent company-funded profit-sharing retirement program.

When other shareholders demanded a change in management, in large part to ready the company to be bought out by a private equity firm, the board took Arthur T. and his executive team out. This prompted the non-unionized employees to walk off the job.

The impasse, which also included a widespread customer boycott, ended with an announcement that Arthur T. had bought out his rival family members for $1.5 billion — a deal that would allow him to resume day-to-day operations of the company. Employees not only returned to work, they held parties to mark the occasion.

Carving your own path and then convincing people to follow: Few leaders in the world took more risks last year than Pope Francis. His challenge will be to take the goodwill he’s built and use it to actually transform his organization.

Following up on 2013, a year that saw the then-new pope make important statements on poverty and sexual orientation, Pope Francis continued his hit parade with changes to the very structure of the Roman Catholic Church while speaking out on important and pressing issues of the day.

In early 2014, Pope Francis cleaned house at the scandal-plagued Vatican bank. He also spoke out strongly on climate change, noting that evidence shows humans have caused drastic changes in the environment, and urging world leaders to take more urgent action to address the resulting problems.

Leading by not following the pack: I was struck by the courage and foresight demonstrated by CVS, which announced it would become the first major pharmacy chain in the United States to ban tobacco products. At a time when fewer and fewer people are smoking, you might not think that’s newsworthy. But consider that this decision, effective in October, will mean $2 billion in lost sales for its 7,600 hundred stores across the U.S.

The strategy behind the move is fairly simple. With the Affordable Care Act now formally in place and giving tens of millions of additional Americans health insurance, CVS wants to be a primary provider of health care. Like Wal-Mart and other big retailers, CVS is opening up mini clinics in its stores to provide basic care and health care advice.

Clearly, CVS realized that selling a toxic product like tobacco just doesn’t square with a health-conscious corporate profile.

Leading with vision: Finding out that your major customer will no longer buy your principal product could be devastating for any company. For Corning Incorporated, however, it was an opportunity for the CEO to show what he was really made of.

In April, Wendell P. Weeks, the Chairman, CEO and President of Corning Incorporated, faced shareholders at his company’s annual meeting to quell panic over the news that its industry-leading Gorilla Glass – a component in most smart phones – would not be used in the next-generation Apple iPhone 6.

Weeks demonstrated real courage in the face of uncertainty. “Our products change, our markets change, and our businesses change,” said Weeks. “But what doesn’t change is our capacity for innovation, our unique capability set, and our ability to transform and lead markets.”

Sure enough, Corning ended the year with a string of new product launches and acquisitions. Its share price had soared, and investors remained bullish on the company’s future.

Leading by walking out onto the limb: It’s one thing to say you are an enlightened leader, it’s quite another to demonstrate it to the world.

I was struck last year by the courage of leaders such as TD Bank CEO Ed Clark and Apple CEO Tim Cook, both of whom staked their personal and corporate reputations on public statements supporting same-sex marriage and benefits for same-sex partners.

Clark gave a speech at WorldPride Human Rights Conference in Toronto about how the corporate world needs to embrace and respect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Although TD in 1994 became one the first Canadian companies to offer full benefits to the partners of same-sex employees, no senior executive at the bank had ever come out so strongly, in such a public forum, in support of LGBT issues.

Cook was already known as one of the most powerful gay business leaders in America when he made headlines by leading some 5,000 Apple employees in a Pride Day march in San Francisco. Cook had already staked his personal reputation on an enlightened position; it was a big step, however, to make support of Pride Day a corporate priority.

Cook and Clark embody, for me, a new generation of business leaders who are willing to use the influence they have, as both individuals and heads of large organizations, towards making the world a better place.

Leading by taking a stand on work-life balance: Max Schierson certainly isn’t the most well known CEO, and he doesn’t lead the biggest tech company but he made powerful statements nonetheless when he resigned to spend more time with his family.

Former CEO of MongoDB Schierson posted a highly personal blog entry in which he revealed that he felt an obligation to his family to dedicate more time at home, and less at work. He said far too many men in leadership positions escape the demands of home life, and he didn’t want to be that kind of man.

“As a male CEO, I have been asked what kind of car I drive and what type of music I like, but never how I balance the demands of being both a dad and a CEO,” Schireson wrote in the Huffington Post. “While the press haven’t asked me, it is a question that I often ask myself.”

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