So I thought about telling them how to fix it and then I realized I didn’t speak Chinese. So I took off my shoes and I jumped into trench. I know that a one-inch pebble underneath one end of the level will be just about 2% grade, that’s what we needed. So without saying a word, I grabbed the level, I took a rock and I held it and went back to pipes and I raised it up and I signaled for them to put some sand under the pipe when we got it just right.
And then I went to the next pipe, then I did it again and on the third pipe I had it to the men in the trench and I had them hold a pebble under the level until I got it just right. Then I asked them to do one more and they did. And then I got out of the trench, took my shoes and went back to the hotel.
That incident became viral in the company. I had no idea what was going to happen. But inside I was realizing what Bob Townsend had told me, if I had pushed them and I had yelled at them and told them what to do, I probably wouldn’t know where they’d go. But by grabbing the level and pulling them, showing them exactly what to do without saying a single word in a totally different culture, they listened. That incident went through the whole company and they realized that it was – it’s a symbol that I would jump in the trenches with them. The big boss would jump in the trench in the mud and pull them. I had no idea it was going to be so powerful. But it really paid off.
There are some great leaders that have pulled a lot of people. My favorite is Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi united two religions, ended a more than 100-year colonial empire by motivating the British to leave. He did so in a peaceful manner and basically he just stopped eating. That’s powerful!
Power comes when the people that you are leading give you their support. When that support comes to you, I call that like power. They offer you the power and then they watch you. If you take that power and you deflect all of it back to them, then they give you more. And then if you give more back to them in the second wave they’d give you even more. But if you start to take some of that power, they start giving you less. And those leaders that accept the power make a critical mistake, because now the power that’s going to come and give them more and more and more power, falters and goes away. And I can point out many leaders around the world even today that are falling, because they took the power. They didn’t give it back to the people they were leading.
Leadership is a gift. You can’t buy it, you can’t sell it, can’t trade it. You either have it or you don’t. I went to a design school and they said “You were accepted here because you have shown a lot of creativity. We can’t teach you creativity”. That sounds like leadership. But if you have that skill set and you have that talent, what we’re going to do is we’re going to hone it, we’re going to polish it, we’re going to give you discipline so that you can apply your skill and they did.
Leadership is the most valuable commodity on the planet and it is the rarest commodity we have. It’s not food, the lack of food, it’s not the lack of water, it’s not oil or minerals, it’s leadership. But it’s not any form of leadership, it’s the Townsonian model of doing it without ego. If you can follow the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi, Ronald Reagan — Ronald Reagan used to send his staff home at Christmas time so they could be with their family. He says, “You don’t worry about me; you guys go home, take care of yourself.” He’s putting everything back.
You take a look at the Czechoslovakian leader that just died: Václav Havel. A simple man drove his same car, became the leader of the country, he took nothing and he gave it back and his country made a peaceful conversion to democracy and freedom; that’s leadership.
Herb Kelleher was the CEO and Founder of Southwest Airlines. He would go out and work one day a month handling baggage in the company. Bob Townsend used to spend one day a week renting out cars at the counter. You need to be in touch with the people you lead and you need to be in their shoes.
So I just want to leave you with one thought — all of you here that are studying and going on to be managers and leaders, remember if you have that skill set to hone it and discipline it, because it is the rarest commodity in the planet and the world needs you.
Thank you so much.