The B.S.:

Author’s lessons in leadership are timeless

Bruce Spotleson

Bruce Spotleson

VEGAS INC Coverage

Long ago but not far away, an aspiring young executive was in a large company that demanded its future leaders read books if they ever wanted to be considered for promotion. Because all the company’s young managers wanted that opportunity, they prepared by reading everything they could about management and leadership.

It was an era in which a lot of new management theories were on best-seller lists. This young executive, however, took a particular liking to the books written decades earlier by Peter Drucker.

Drucker was a deep thinker on the functions and organization of the business, government and nonprofit sectors of society. He gained fame as the godfather of American management theory and practice, and became an adviser to some of our most successful companies.

So the young exec read and marked up all his works, hoping to one day have the chance to apply Drucker’s leadership lessons. In a relatively short time, his preparation coincided with an opportunity, and he got the big promotion. The company had purchased a struggling small-town operation. He was named its CEO, and charged with moving it forward.

Soon thereafter, he got schooled on the reality of the business world. After having been coddled by the large company, he was thrown into the more daunting job of leading a group of employees who’d involuntarily had a new boss handed to them. In the weeks that followed, they made it clear that the transition would not be an easy one. Not for the young exec, anyway.

His cheery morning greetings were often met with cold silence. Attempts at getting to know his new team resulted in curt and abrupt responses. No one wanted to be seen speaking with him, eyes looked away when he approached and there were never volunteers for assignments. He wanted desperately to be liked, thinking that was the key, and forgetting the lessons from the books.

This went on for weeks. With rare exceptions, virtually all his overtures were rejected, an unsettling experience for a young exec.

While making his usual morning rounds one day, the place seemed more tense than usual. He asked a staff member why.

“We’re out of toilet paper,” she said. The young exec’s chance to win them over had finally arrived.

Not to worry, he told her. You now work for a large company that can certainly afford bathroom supplies. She shook her head, indicating that he didn’t understand, and then led him to the storage room.

He was surprised when she pointed to a big box of toilet paper rolls sitting on the floor, and so he immediately looked inside. There, he observed one of the larger black widow webs he had ever seen, a funnel entwined among the remaining rolls, its large denizen nestled at the bottom. No one would have dared to reach a bare hand inside, and he was not about to, either.

By this time, a number of employees had drifted over to watch the situation unfold.

The young exec asked himself what Drucker would do. And then he did it.

Now the center of his employees’ attention, the young exec began to nudge the box along the floor with his foot, working it toward the exit doors, where he then kicked it into the parking lot. The building had emptied out now, with every employee out on the pavement to witness the outcome.

The young exec kicked the box to flip it over, sending rolls in every direction. A widow the size of a plum scurried from its previous shelter. He chased it down, leaping to stomp it with a shoe.

Heart pounding and sweating in the desert heat, he turned to face a spectator workforce he barely knew. It looked back at him. And then it broke into applause. An anxious-looking woman broke from the crowd, plucked a roll off the pavement, and dashed off to the restroom.

From that point on, the young exec’s company began to slowly move forward. Today, it seems a somewhat silly but perhaps valid example of some of Peter Drucker’s fundamental principles of leadership.

Drucker died six years ago this month. I still keep many of his books within arm’s reach. Of course, my recollection of that spider becomes larger every time I tell the story. And it’s a memory that comes to mind often of recent, as we report more frequently on coaches, managers and elected leaders who seem to have evaded their responsibilities.

“Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked,” Drucker wrote. “Leadership is defined by results, not attributes.”