When It Sounds Good in Theory: Putting Our… | Gagen MacDonald

Insights & Events / Blog

When It Sounds Good in Theory: Putting Our Leadership Philosophies to Test in Critical Moments

Jan 08, 2015
We all wish human behavior was a little more neatly packaged. We take in experiences, we read, we discuss, we think and analyze, and, eventually, we arrive on philosophies that we believe to be true. The challenge, we think, becomes one merely of application.Unfortunately, the world (and especially our brains) doesn’t always cater to our philosophical baselines. As people, and especially as leaders, we are often torn between conflicting instincts, between good and bad impulses. This has been a recurring theme of my Let Go and Lead conversations, and was particularly well encapsulated in my discussion with Al Carey, the CEO of PepsiCo Americas Beverages.In Al’s case, he is deeply committed to empowering others and believes in a school of thought called “servant leadership”. As he describes it, the basic precept of this philosophy is that, “you’ll always do better in business if you serve others.” As such, Al sees his role as an executive in this way: “My role as a servant leader is not to tell everyone what to do, but to set the direction and then remove obstacles for people so that they can get to their goal.”Of course, as Al readily admits, the most challenging circumstances often create the greatest friction with this philosophy. For instance, he shared one particular personal anecdote from his time at Frito-Lay, a PepsiCo company where he previously served as CEO. In October, 2008, at the depth of the country’s economic calamity, Al told me about his choice to pull considerable decision-making power back from the field to headquarters: “We sat in a room on a Friday afternoon, and even though I was saying we’re an empowering, servant leadership organization, when the pressure gets on, you start pulling the reins back in and you feel like you’re in a better position to make decisions at the center.”As he describes it, he ended up giving instructions to the general manager of a specific market. While that direction would have worked in many places, it was simply ill-suited to that geography’s particular needs. In retrospect, as he realized months later, “By not empowering [that team] and by trying to be command and control, I think we gave them the wrong direction…That was an example that it’s during difficult times when we should be empowering people even more to try to make decisions outside of the center.”The lesson I take away from this story is that committing to a philosophy alone will not eliminate some of our natural impulses to try to take control. Having those impulses doesn’t disqualify us as good leaders, nor do they make our philosophies unworkable, impractical or obsolete. We’re not perfect, nor are the philosophies that guide us. The point is that if we maintain a high level of self-awareness and can view any particular circumstance, good or bad, from a position of neutrality, we have a better chance of making the right choice in critical moments.
/ Jan 08, 2015

Good Leadership Requires Good Data

Previous Post
/ Jan 08, 2015

The Power of Fred

Next Post