By Janice Sutton
Doug Keeley is president of Mark of a Leader, a consulting firm based in Toronto. He was a highly engaging keynote speaker at the recent NAFA Institute and Expo in Tampa, Florida. Fleet Management Weekly interviewed him after his keynote address.
What makes a great leader?
To be a great leader you must be 100 percent accountable for your actions. You must have clarity of vision. You must have integrity. Moreover, you must be a good communicator and a good storyteller. It’s not just about the person at the top – leaders at every level of the organization must also possess these qualities.
The most powerful definition of a leader is someone who helps others to be their best. A leader’s job is not to get the most out of people, it is to get the best out of people. Great leaders do that; they get people to do things that they didn’t know they were capable of doing, and when they’re done, those people say, “Wow! I had no idea that I could do that. That is unbelievable!”
A great leader is someone who creates a team that he or she is part of. Any business is a “we” game, not a “me” game. So, the business only succeeds when “we” succeed, not when one person or their career succeeds; we only win when the tide raises all of the boats.
In your keynote address, you talked about five levels of leadership. You said that most companies are typically willing to engage in two. Can you talk about that?
Human beings operate on five levels. First, we have a spirit level, which is devotion to something that is bigger than each of us as an individual, like our family, religion, and helping the community. Second, we have our right brain, which is creativity — imagination, I call it. Third, our left brain, which is intellect, logic and strategy. Fourth is our heart, by which I mean our passion as human beings — the fire in the belly, our drive. Fifth, we use our hands, which bring our ideas to life.
Most businesses concentrate on 3 and 5 — intellect and hands. Ironically, great human performance comes from the other three. These: spirit, imagination, and heart generate the big ideas that excite people and drive them to leap out of bed to pursue.
A leader thinks creatively and with imagination. Differently from the competition. An example is Uber: “Who said that we can’t have part-time drivers?” A leader is passionate — if you love what you do, you will do it better than anyone who doesn’t. A leader’s job is to get your people engaged on all five of those levels and to make sure that you, yourself, are constantly engaged on all of those levels.
Telling stories is part of what you believe makes a great leader. Why are they so important, in your view, in business?
All human civilizations and cultures have been built on stories. Before there was writing there were oral stories that told each generation the history of their tribe or their people or whatever it happened to be. All religions are basically story books. They are tales of people and events that tell us how to behave. We remember stories because they touch us on all of our levels; that’s how they shape our behavior. And when you put collective behavior together, that is called culture, and culture drives performance
You say, though, that businesses are forgetting their stories.
In the last 20 years, working with big companies as clients, what I have seen is that they are losing their stories in favor of data. Everything is about data. They want to make a point and say to themselves, “Well, how can I support this idea? Data. Bullet points on charts and so on.” But the problem with data is it that it’s infinitely forgettable. If you can remember a single PowerPoint slide you have ever seen in your life I will give you a million dollars in cash right now, because no one can, right? But you can remember the story of the Easter Bunny or Jack and the Beanstalk, or whatever stories you grew up with.
I like the story which literally changed FedEx’s future. It happened back in the ‘80s, when it was just an upstart company facing big competition. FedEx’s promise to their customers at the time was to deliver packages absolutely, positively on time. One day, a FedEx driver was delivering some time-sensitive medical materials and got stuck in a huge snowstorm with the roads all closed. He realized that this material was time sensitive; that there was someone at a hospital waiting for it. And so, he rented a helicopter and flew to the destination to deliver the package on time.
How did this become a story?
The story made its way into the newspapers and everyone I knew saw it. And we said, “Oh my gosh, that is the kind of company I want delivering my time-sensitive packages to a client.”
Now, the cynics said, “Well, they will be bankrupt by Christmas if all of their drivers are renting helicopters.” But Fred Smith, the CEO of FedEx, said, “No, no, no. This is a story that shows what we mean by absolutely, positively on time. This is our commitment to our customers. And I don’t believe that our guys are so crazy that they are going to just start renting helicopters, but I think there is a time and a place where that might be appropriate if that is the best solution and I heartily endorse that.” The driver became a hero at FedEx, and is to this day.
Today, your typical organization — maybe even a delivery company out pitching new business — has a PowerPoint deck that says here is a bunch of data on price-per-unit and accuracy and on time efficiency, and so on. But none of that means anything in terms of power and impact compared to the story about the driver, which shows the behavior in action.
So, what should companies do?
Every organization these days should be very, very focused on their origin stories. Meg Whitman had to reignite Hewlett-Packard’s garage story, the founding story of Silicon Valley — Dave and Bill in a garage, right? They had totally lost it in the midst of all the mergers and acquisitions and turmoil.
Every company has a story of some kind. There are origin stories, like where did we start and how did we get here? There are war stories, telling how some of its people have gone the extra distance like the FedEx guy to help a customer. There are internal stories, stories about people who have crossed the silo to help their teammates or done something great, pushing themselves to the limit and beyond. Those are the stories that cultures are built upon and, sadly, they are being lost.
Everybody, at every level of the organization, needs to be thinking about their stories. As a consultant, I help every one of my clients conduct story workshops where we help people find and capture their stories so that they can be wisely shared within the company.
One of the things you urge businesses to do is “commit and then figure it out.” Tell us more about that.
Businesses spend a lot of time these days worrying about what could go right and what could go wrong, and then planning forever instead of launching into some endeavor. Instead, companies that are very successful say, “Here’s a big idea – let’s think it through, but we can’t plan forever and let overthinking delay us. If it’s not perfect at first, we can improve it while it’s in the market and being used.”
So, the idea is to commit to what you are going to do and then figure out how to get there. Look at how we put a man on the moon, maybe the greatest achievement in our lifetime. When President Kennedy set that goal, nobody knew how we were going to do it. There wasn’t even a computer as good as our iPhones back then. But Kennedy said, “I am giving us a deadline, end of the decade.” And what happened? A lot of people figured it out and got it done six months ahead of deadline.
Can you think of a company that exemplifies many of the things that you said in your keynote speech?
The company that jumps to mind is Zappos.com. They have taken an incredibly boring business, a call center selling shoes, and turned it into a customer service art form. The key was how they thought: backwards from the actual experience of someone getting a pair of shoes in a box, by the courier or the mail, and opening it. Is it something they bought themselves or something they have given someone as a gift? Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO, calls the moment when the customer opens the box a moment of happiness.
In addition, they have created a culture where everyone is allowed to be themselves, quirks and all. They help each other all of the time. They celebrate long phone calls with customers rather than punishing their call center people. I think the record is nine hours with a customer. And that’s not all. Everyone at Zappos knows that they are in this together.