The Leader as a Purple
He was a terminally ill ten-year-old boy, but he had a Steinway smile and an invitational attitude. His malady had left him completely blind for the previous two years.
"You gotta meet this kid," the hospital administrator announced to a visiting colleague while they were together making hospital rounds. She briefly outlined the boy's prognosis as the two approached his hospital room.
"How's it going?" asked the hospital administrator as they drew closer to the boy's bed. "If I were a kitten, I'd be purring!" he said. His giant laugh shot out of the room and landed half-way down the long corridor.
"Are they treating you okay?" the visitor asked, trying to get a handle on this awesome bundle of joy patiently waiting to die. "You bet. They make me feel purple," he responded.
"Purple?" the visitor queried. "Yes, they tell me neat stories, they listen to all my questions, they get me what I need…and, then they give me a big hug. It makes me feel like a prince - all purple!"
Great leaders are purple makers. They know there is a straight line between how employees feel and how they make customers feel or how much passion is put into their work. A leader cannot "make" someone feel a particular way. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "No one makes you feel inferior without your permission." She could have substituted any emotion (happy, sad, excited, or apathetic) for the word "inferior." But, leaders can influence how employees choose to feel exactly in the fashion outline by the junior philosopher.
"They tell me neat stories…"
Great leaders are story tellers. They recognize that traditions, values and beliefs are communicated through anecdotes. While the communication today is fast, furious and oftentimes overheated through e-mails, the present atmosphere of tribe and the future awareness of legacy are still both accomplished through the retelling of stories.
Stories telegraph a set of norms unique to the organization. When Southwest Airlines employees tell of retired CEO Herb Kelleher hiding in the luggage bin to scare passengers as they entered the plane, they are REALLY saying, "We are supposed to have fun." When Marriott managers tell of founder J. Willard Marriott noticing customers buying sandwiches at his restaurant near the D.C. airport to eat on the plane and then his starting the first meal catering service to the airlines, they are really saying "Take care of customers and look for opportunities to serve."
Just as great teachers have always used stories to foster learning, great leaders tell stories to serve as the glue to mold a gathering of people into a partnership of colleagues. If stories are told with consistency, conviction, and clarity, they are heard. If stories are followed by aligned actions and obvious accountability, they are believed. If stories are repeated by those not the subject of the tale, they are remembered.
"They listen to all my questions…"
"But you don't listen to me." It was the ages old line a teenage boy shot point-blank at his frustrated father in the heat of their verbal battle. The words ricocheted across several neighborhood yards. And, it tactlessly lassoed everyone in earshot into involuntary eavesdropping.
"What do you mean?" his father responded in his own defense. "I listen to you all the time." The decibel level of their fight suddenly went hushed and died after the next heart splitting line.
"You and mom listen to me talk. But, my friends listen to what I say!"
The lament of the teenager was for recordings on the heart, not for sound waves on the ear. He did not feel understood, and therefore valued. Today's employees feel over surveyed and undervalued. Too much effort goes into listening to employees talk rather than listening to what is said and meant. Too often the pursuit is for facts rather than feelings; conversation instead of candor.
Leadership connections are similar to electrical connections. The most effective power comes from connections that are grounded and on the same wavelength. Employees are much more focused when they can operate from a wholesome, solid (no BS) position. Their commitment also soars when interaction between leader and employee is one of mutuality-that is, it has the spirit of an interpersonal dialogue.
"They get me what I need…real fast"
Great leaders blend attentive learning with rapid action. Alphagraphics is a chain of quick copy print shops around the country. "What are ways you think we act differently than what we say or promise?" asked Dallas store manager Butch Clarke of a customer one day as a print job was being picked up.
"You talk about right job right at the right time, but I don't see a clock anywhere," responded the frequent customer. "Why don't you put a big school house wall clock where both your employees and customers can see it?"
"Great idea," Butch answered. Opening the cash register and withdrawing a $20 bill, he turned to his colleague and said, "Steve, please take this money to the store at the end of the block and buy us a big battery operated wall clock to put on the wall right there. We can do the paperwork later."
The move was dramatic. No sooner had Butch learned of an improvement idea from a customer but he implemented the idea right in front of the customer. No, you can't instantly implement every idea every customer or employee suggests. And, employees and customers don't expect you to do everything they ask for. It is being valued that employees and customers light up about.
Great leaders have a strong drive for implementation. Granted, there is value in careful planning and thoughtful preparation. However, until there is execution, no plan is flawed; no preparation inadequate. Execution spotlights all. Cultures can get enamored with the preliminaries since there are no consequences. Sometimes, the rapid, daring example of a Butch Clarke reinforces an attitude that it is better to fail moving forward than to fail standing still.
"And, then they give me a big hug."
"Don't ever hire someone you'd be reluctant to hug," a highly successful CEO shared with a group of new managers. This particular CEO was not speaking of the workplace as a country club or fraternity house. Nor was he advocating leaders be huggers. Some people are uncomfortable with public displays of affection. Instead, he was espousing a belief that greatness emanates from a culture of affiliation and affirmation. When people work around people they genuinely like and enjoy, that spills over in their dealings with customers and into the pride they show in their work.
He was also implying that great leaders eliminate obstacles to expressing affection. And, "non-huggable" could be a barrier. Watch leaders in organizations known for greatness. Without exception, they are quick to affirm others. From a warm nod to a pat of the back to a big bear hug, they boldly and obviously express kinship with associates. Some are interpersonally shy and awkward with affirmation. Yet, they soar past their own internal reservation because they value the impact affirmations have on others.
"Feeling purple" is an individual choice. But, that choice is more easily taken when, behind the front line associate, stands a leader "telling neat stories, listening to all their questions, assertively getting associates what they need … and, then giving them a big hug!"
Chip R. Bell is founder and senior partner of The Chip Bell Group in Dallas, TX. A renowned keynote speaker, he is the author of several best-selling books including Magnetic Service. He can be reached through www.chipbell.com .
Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives