Edit: I have written on this matter further, here.

I read an  article by Ekaterina Walter on Forbes and found it very interesting. She writes that there are very few great managers. And even fewer great leaders. She says: “Making your team happy by displaying behaviours that are expected from you as a manager is hard. But it is even harder to inspire people to follow you, especially if you don’t have direct authority over them.”

Read the article and get inspired (the hyperlink is given above).

Ms Walter says that leaders are not always perfect. And, sometimes, they are downright quirky. But they display a set of behaviours that make them admired and loved. Let’s look at some of the rare ones – these are the ones she has identified:

  • chessThey play Devil’s Advocate and Challenge Assumptions
  • They take the blame
  • They couldn’t care less about conventional wisdom
  • They shut up but listen intently
  • They intentionally seek diversity
  • They invite naiveté
  • They disappear and are masters of creating white space in which creativity thrives.

Two nice quotes from this article:

Malcom Forbes once said: “The art of conversation lies in listening.”

George S. Patton said, “If everyone is thinking the same, then someone isn’t thinking.” 

I found an academic paper on this subject here. It examines the relationship between a leader’s unconventional behaviour and followers’ creative performance at both the individual and group level in an experimental setting. The paper is a bit old (but so am I) and it’s interesting (but so am I, sometimes).

Bruna Martinuzzi, writing at mindtools.com, reminds us that there is a well-known Chinese proverb that says that “the wise adapt themselves to circumstances, as water moulds itself to the pitcher.” She says that adaptability – the ability to change (or be changed) to fit new circumstances – is a crucial skill for leaders, and an important competency in emotional intelligence. She cites a 2008 study conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, entitled Growing Global Executive Talent, which showed that the top three leadership qualities that will be important over the years ahead include: the ability to motivate staff (35 percent); the ability to work well across cultures (34 percent); and the ability to facilitate change (32 percent). The least important were technical expertise (11 percent) and “bringing in the numbers” (10 percent).

Jack Welch, the former CEO of the US giant corporation GE, claimed that there are 8 main things leaders do which makes them successful:

  • Leaders relentlessly upgrade their team, using every encounter as an opportunity to evaluate, coach, and build self-confidence.
  • Leaders make sure people not only see the vision, they live and breathe it.
  • Leaders get into everyone’s skin, exuding positive energy and optimism.
  • Leaders establish trust with candour, transparency and credit.
  • Leaders have the courage to make unpopular decisions and gut calls.
  • Leaders probe and push with a curiosity that borders on scepticism, making sure their questions are answered with action.
  • Leaders inspire risk taking and learning by setting the example.
  • Leaders celebrate.

Leadership styles cannot be fully explained by behavioural models. The situation in which a group of people is operating also determines the style of leadership which is adopted. Four well known leadership models are outlined here:

•  Fiedler’s Contingency Theory Model

•  Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Model

•  Evans, House et al Path-Goal Theory

•  Vroom-Yetton Leadership Model

There are many other models in practice, many of which are adaptations of the above models.

If you want unconventional leaderships, you can do no better that to read about three cases I wrote about in my MBA a few years ago.


s1In the early 1980s, Ricardo Semler inherited from his father a company that was about to go broke. By 1993 when Tom Peters wrote about it in Liberation Management, it had become a business employing 800 people.  Productivity per employee had grown seven fold in the 1980s despite the unbelievable and constant turmoil in Brazil’s markets.  Semler wrote about his success in Harvard Business review in 1989. He had started work on reconstruction by splitting things up – creating business units. The first effect of this was to increase costs due to duplication of effort and loss of economies of scale but the newly autonomous units of between 100 and 150 people each, produced an immediate turnaround with sales doubling within a year and numerous new products, festering in R&D for years came to the front. His success appears to have been in the first instance in breaking the units up into smaller units (something which has happened in other companies such as Richard Branson’s Virgin companies).

This is an example of a business in which the workers were very much involved (a Participative Management success) and where something had to be done because of the economic turmoil of their home country – Brazil. Indeed, a number of changes were made: if one major change didn’t work, they tried another, then another… until they succeeded.


M1The story about Metalsa is mostly about quality and lessons from the Japanese. Metalsa is an engineering business in Monterrey, Mexico. The Director of Operations, Antonio Zarate took a trip to Japan in 1985 and found some remarkable things: He discovered that the Japanese were quite different to Mexicans and their methods were different too: in the tools they used and the values they placed on their relationships. In particular, he noted that they cared for each other.

He returned to Mexico with a new paradigm and established a new philosophy at Metalsa and a new formula for success. The formula was complicated but it certainly caught on. The success at Metalsa has several things in common with that at Semco – both were in Central/South America and employed multi-national people. Both were faced with major economic difficulty. Metalsa mainly succeeded because of the implementation of a system based on quality of personal belief and quality of output.

Johnsonville Sausage

j1Its former CEO (Ralph Stayer) in “Flight of the Buffalo” writes about Johnsonville Foods. The business started in 1945 when his parents opened a butcher shop and named it after their hometown – Johnsonville, Wisconsin. People who tried their sausages were hard-pressed to find such extraordinary tasting sausages anywhere else in the country.  By the 1950’s, Ralph Stayer and his sister became involved in sausage-making and promoted the expansion of the company’s wholesale business.

In 1978, Stayer became president of Johnsonville and launched the company into major expansion by shipping its products out-of-state. In 1981 Johnsonville aired its first TV-commercial featuring the “Johnsonville Brats!” In 1984, Launa Stayer started the company’s first direct sales force. The 1980’s saw sales increase 20 times that of the previous decade and a distribution growth to include 47 States. The company has diversified into new food categories to reflect the commitment to meet the demands of today’s marketplace. In the book, Stayer attributes the success of the business to the people in the company but acknowledges that it wouldn’t have happened unless he had changed himself. He did that by four simple steps:

•  by “learning how to listen and really hear”;

•  by “learning to work with others and trust them”;

•  by “learning how to appreciate the contributions that his people made”; and

•  by “learning the value of learning and how to systematically accomplish it”.

Clearly, Stayer weighed up all the pros and cons before deciding what to do. Stayer says that he had to relearn most of what he believed to be true about business in order to lead Johnsonville forward. He says that his journey was not so much about learning but more about “learning how to learn”- a skill that he didn’t acquire at school nor in his early business career. He admits to being willing to do whatever it took to make Johnsonville grow, yet by 1980 he’d reached a point when he realised (his own words) “If I kept doing what I had always done, I was going to keep getting what I was getting”.  The most important thing he realised was that he had to change. This is a key to what has happened in other successful businesses – it’s the people that have to change first rather than the business itself. In changing, Stayer says that he had to embrace four simple steps (as outlined above).

By the mid-1980s, Stayer had created a new picture in his mind of the future in his business – one of getting so good at leadership as to be able to coach leaders in other companies. But as a sausage maker from a small town in Wisconsin, he didn’t have much of a chance until Tom Peters talked about him in his book Thriving on Chaos and in his television special: The Leadership Alliance which brought Johnsonville into national prominence. 

The old rule used to be that the job of the leader was to plan, organise, command, coordinate and control – something that Fayol had written about in the previous century.  Stayer had seen his organisation functioning like a herd of buffalo. The leader is the head buffalo – it’s hard work for the lead buffalo to keep issuing orders.

One day, Stayer realised that what he really wanted was a group of responsible, inter-dependent workers similar to a flock of geese flying in a V-formation each taking responsibility for leadership frequently, changing roles when necessary, as a leader, a follower or even a scout. And as the tasks change, he saw geese being responsible for changing the structure of the group, similar to the geese that fly in a “V” but land in waves.

Before Stayer had started, the business had signs of quality, and earnings were above average for the industry, but there were other signs showing that it was operating well below its potential. People were uninterested in their work. They didn’t care and they were careless and made thoughtless mistakes, wasting time and materials; they didn’t accept responsibility for what they did, nor were they committed.

When Stayer examined things in detail, he started to ask questions like: Why is there an employee motivation problem? He recognised that success was dependent upon the motivation of the people in the business.

Stayer discovered something important. He saw in himself both the reasons for success as well as failure in his business.

Most of the above, and an in-depth look at leadership is covered in a publication I wrote. If you email me at mpollins@bizezia.com and include “LEADERSHIP” in the subject line, I will be happy to let you have the publication at no cost.  

Martin Pollins
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