Magnetic Service Requires Leaders With Character
by Chip R. Bell and Bilijack R. Bell

Few revolutionary war heroes capture the imagination of young students like General Francis Marion. Marion was physically unattractive, stood only five feet tall, and walked with a pronounced limp (the byproduct of jumping out of a second story window to avoid capture). But he had two qualities that made him a major contributor to the defeat of England: his courage (which helped him secure the rank of colonel at an early age) and his ingenuity (which earned him the name "The Swamp Fox"). He was a man of substance.

The Swamp Fox's hotly pursued Marion's Brigade frequently embarrassed the British Redcoats by using bold tactics that completely altered the way battles were traditionally fought. The British soldiers fought with orderly precision and methodical planning; Marion from trees and bushes. The British wore bright red uniforms; Marion's Brigade donned camouflage.

The Swamp Fox's hit-and-run methods typically caught the British army completely off guard. Creatively engineered guerrilla tactics enabled Marion's small, under-resourced unit to take on a well-supplied enemy who had many times more troops. In one decisive victory Marion was out-numbered twenty to one, and his soldiers had only three bullets each and no artillery. It was guerrilla warfare at its finest.

Magnetic service is like guerrilla warfare -- unconventional, maverick, and out of the ordinary. Customers today are bored with plain vanilla, meets-expectations service. They desire a quality product or outcome delivered with style and pride. They are loyal to service providers that provide remarkable service that leaves a story to tell. Such sparkly service requires leaders with courage enough to take the road less traveled.

Francis Marion Was Courageous

Magnetic service leaders are courageous. Not a show-off fearless kind of courageous, but rather an "I only regret I have but one life to lose for my country" kind. It is the courage that wells up from a devotion to duty rather than bravery that extends from disorderly desperation. It is seen in leadership that has its source in a deep commitment to customers as well as an insatiable desire to serve. Bill Marriott, Jr. said, "Great service comes from organizations whose leaders embrace the nobility of serving and thus pursue a path that leaves their customers pleased and their associates proud."

Jimmy Crippen, owner and manager of Crippen's Country Inn and Restaurant in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, knows the power of a courageous, do-the-right-thing example. The popular restaurant is an old bed and breakfast style home on a quiet street near downtown. It was a busy Friday night, in mid-October, a time when throngs of people descend upon the quaint town to enjoy the beauty of the fall colors. A group of twelve from Atlanta arrived at the restaurant. One of them had made a reservation with Jimmy himself six weeks prior. Unfortunately, Jimmy had logged the reservation in his book for Saturday evening. The restaurant was packed.

"I am absolutely booked and can't possibly accommodate twelve people, much less at the same table," reported Jimmy. "But have your party go to the bar - drinks are on the house - while I work on a solution." Minutes later a crew of six waiters were hauling tables and chairs from the kitchen to the large front porch of the restaurant. Before they could finish their first drink, the hungry out-of-towners were escorted to a spot that proved to offer the best seats in the house. Jimmy personally waited on their every need. A potential disaster was transformed into an enchanting evening because a bold leader walked his talk.

Customers are devoted to organizations that serve with honor. Serving honorably ensures agility and focus. Energy can be totally directed at real, substantive work when there is no time being absorbed looking over a shoulder. Similarly, customers know they don't have to waste time double checking to make sure what was promised was delivered; what was expected in fact comes true. No one has to spend precious mental or emotional energy trying to figure out spoken innuendo or suspicious actions or how to weasel around political minefields.

Magnetic service leaders are willing to go against the tide. Most leaders today have been inundated with the many ways they can violate employee rights and infringe on the sanctity of good public relations. Just as they have been instructed in acting like a leader, they have been informed to think like a lawyer. Many have learned to surrender to unrealistic demands (under the banner of some cause) when their consciences scream for acting on principle. Too many leaders would rather lose sleep than lose face. Such timidity has bred a cautiousness about controversy that has spread way beyond complex employee relations issues. The dearth of value-based decisions has left too many organizations with a character deficit.

Francis Marion Was Prepared

Francis Marion grew up in the wetlands near the coastal town of Georgetown, South Carolina. He spent his childhood learning the ways of the swamp. By the time his family moved in 1747 to a newer plantation when Francis was fifteen, he was an expert on the wild. The swamp life never left his heart. When he formed Marion's Brigade he made his headquarters deep in the swamp near the Pee Dee River. By the late 1780's they were prepared to attack the British. The unit's expertise with terrain strange to the British soldiers bolstered their courage to play David and Goliath.

Magnetic service leaders find courage is strengthened by preparation. Dancers do rehearsal, soldiers play war games, planners create what-if scenarios, and product makers use dry runs. Granted, everything cannot be pilot tested. But magnetic leaders, like General Francis Marion, do their homework. "It isn't the will to win that's important," says famous and controversial Texas Tech basketball coach Bobby Knight. "Everyone has the will to win. What's important is the will to prepare to win."

Southern Ohio Medical Center in Portsmouth, Ohio, had a problem in 1998. Press Ganey, the J.D. Power of healthcare, had rated SOMC in the bottom quartile among all hospitals in customer satisfaction. CEO Randy Arnett and Medical Director Kendall Stewart sounded the charge: We must change our culture quickly. Their challenge was compounded by the fact that Portsmouth was rural and remote. The area was also economically depressed, sometimes making it difficult to attract the best medical talent. The challenge would require broad-based preparation and persistence.

Southern Ohio Medical Center began a journey that included system-wide study of tools and techniques needed to alter the perception of patients. Countless hours were spent by all employees in classes learning the skills of customer service. Committees devised new ways to measure performance and celebrate steps along their journey. The intensive and persistent preparation paid off. In 2001, just four years from their start, Press Ganey rated them in the 99th percentile. Their performance on RN/LPN employee satisfaction was one of the top four hospitals in the entire nation. "Excellence," says HRD director Betsey Clagg, "shows up as stunning execution. But it's really about a solid vision, a thoughtful plan, and preparation - lots of unglamorous, late-at-night, behind-the-scenes preparation."

Francis Marion Had a Cause

A British officer was invited to visit Marion's swamp camp under a flag of truce. Marion offered his visitor a sweet potato baked on a campfire and served on a slab of pine bark. "Surely this cannot be your usual food," said the British officer. "Actually," replied General Marion, "because you are our visitor we are fortunate to have more than our usual amount." When the British officer returned to the British unit's headquarters in Georgetown, his colonel asked why he was so somber. "I have seen an American general and his officers, without pay, and almost without clothes, living on roots in the swamp; and all for liberty! What chances have we against such men?"

Cause can be a deep commitment to the product or service provided to the marketplace. "You've gotta be able to see the beauty in a hamburger bun, " said Ray Kroc, founder of McDonalds. Debbi Fields, founder of Mrs. Fields Cookies echoed the same theme: "I am not a businesswoman. I'm a cookie person." Southwest Airlines President and Chief Operating Officer Colleen Barrett says it this way: "We are not an airline with great customer service. We are a great customer service organization that happens to be in the airline business."

Cause can also be a compelling commitment to the values leaders wish to demonstrate to employees and customers. S. Truett Cathy, founder and chairman of Chick-fil-A, the sixth largest fast-food chain in the U.S., is a deeply religious person. Like 1924 Olympic gold medal runner Eric Liddel's refusal to compete on the Sabbath that formed the plot of the Academy Award wining movie Chariots of Fire, Truett elected to remain closed on Sunday. While competitors KFC, McDonald's, Burger King, and the like serve customers seven days a week, Truett has gained favor in the marketplace for courageously remaining faithful to his cause.

"I like dealing with an organization whose leaders 'stand for something!'" was a frequent answer when a major research firm asked customers, "What do you like most about the organizations to whom you are most loyal?" Chick-fil-A, Southwest Airlines, USAA, and The Container Store were some of the companies that received high marks. Stand-for-something leaders weren't the loud, flamboyant, get-your-name-in-the-paper types. Instead they were courageous leaders who were clear, focused, and unwavering in their commitment to stay their course and stand their ground.

Francis Marion Was Connected

Marion valued his men and saw them as his partners, not his subordinates. In most army units, the commanders lived much better than their troops. This was not Marion's style. With his troops he slept on the ground, wrapped in a single blanket. Often they only had sweet potatoes to eat; sometimes they became sick from bad water in the swamp. He deliberated on tactics with his privates, not just his sergeants. Shared hardship served to galvanize the zeal of the brigade, drawing their bravery from Marion's spirit and example.

Leaders often are heard to say, "It's lonely at the top." Such sentiment is taken from a perspective that positions leadership as a top-down, controlling relationship and not a partnership with colleagues. When Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell was asked how he dealt with the stark terror of being in a space capsule facing almost certain destruction he said, "We had an important job to do, and we were never alone." Great leaders may be by themselves at times, but they are never alone.

Magnetic service leaders do not view accessibility as a passive "my door is always open" gesture. Connected leaders are out in front, there when you need them, behind the scenes, and perpetually "wandering around." Wandering around is far different from ambling around. Connections are deliberate and purposeful efforts to be on the scene to teach, model, reinforce, and affirm.

Great leader connections communicate a service mentality. Captain Michael Abrashoff, is the former captain of the USS Benfold, the ship the U.S. Navy acclaimed to be the best-run ship in the Navy. "On my first day aboard, when the chow line formed for the traditional Sunday lunch on the deck of the ship, I went to the back of the chow line," says Capt. Abrashoff. "It had been a tradition that all officers went to the front of the chow line and then sat together in a different area of the deck. After getting my meal, I sat with the enlisted personnel. It signified to every sailor on board that I was there to support them, not the other way around." The following Sunday, every officer went to the back of the chow line and sat with the enlisted personnel.

Francis Marion Faced Danger as Duty

Leaders are not fearless beings who stoically snub their nose at terror. They are real-life human beings who face danger standing on legs of rubber with their stomachs in their throats. Danger makes them as queasy as a young recruit posed for his first taste of battle. But great leaders lean into danger out of a strong sense of duty and responsibility. "Everyone has butterflies in their stomach," says selling guru and author Zig Ziglar. "The only difference between a pro and an amateur is: the pro has the butterflies in formation." Leaders act like pros because they feel accountable to those they serve.

Francis Marion was not a romantic in search of a hero's funeral. He was a realist who pondered his own mortality with the same uncertainty as the next guy. He hurt when he was wounded; felt remorse when he wronged another. In The Life of General Francis Marion, authors Peter Horry and Mason Weems write, "The Tories murdered several prisoners in cold blood. They said that Lieutenant Marion, at sight of such horrid scenes, appeared much shocked, and seeing among them a man who had often been entertained at his uncle's table, he flew to him for protection, and threw himself into his arms."

Magnetic service leaders are real business leaders, a lot like Francis Marion. Day in, day out, they wear their soul on their sleeves, showing the stuff they are made of. Or as John Ellis in his article "Strategy" in the October, 2002, issue of Fast Company tells it: "…Real business leaders…go out and rally the troops, plant the flag, and make a stand. They confront hostile audiences and they deal with the press. If the issue is confidence, they conduct themselves confidently. If the issue is trust, they make their company's business transparent. If the issue is character, they tell the truth. They do not shirk responsibility; they assume command. Because a fundamental ingredient of business success is leadership. And the granular stuff of leadership is courage, conviction, and character."

Chip R. Bell manages the Dallas office of Performance Research Associates. A renowned keynote speaker, he is the author of several best-selling books. Bilijack R. Bell is an associate with Wilson, Hull & Neal, a commercial real estate firm in Atlanta. This article is adapted from their new book Magnetic Service: Secrets for Creating Passionately Devoted Customers due in bookstores in September. Visit for additional information.

Magnetic Service:
Secrets for Creating Passionately Devoted Customers

by Chip R. Bell and Bilijack R. Bell
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
August 2003

Many more articles in Creative Leadership I and Creative Leadership II
in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2003 by Chip R. Bell & Bilijack R. Bell. All rights reserved.

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