Home » Bob Davids: The Rarest Commodity is Leadership Without Ego at TEDxESCP (Transcript)

Bob Davids: The Rarest Commodity is Leadership Without Ego at TEDxESCP (Transcript)

Bob Davids

Here is the full transcript of entrepreneur Bob Davids’ TEDx Talk presentation: The Rarest Commodity is Leadership Without Ego at TEDxESCP conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: The rarest commodity is leadership without ego by Bob Davids at TEDxESCP


Hello, my name is Bob. I am a designer and an entrepreneur, businessman and today I want to talk about management and leadership.

The reason I’m here today is because I met Bob Townsend in 1980. Some of you may have heard of Bob Townsend; most of you probably haven’t. He was the CEO that built Avis Rent a Car and he wrote a breakthrough book in the 1960s, called Up the Organization. Up the Organization is still the number one book at the Wharton Business School on the must-read list, that’s 50 years of being number one. So I suggest you take a look at it.

It’s really a book about leadership, culture building, without ego. Bob Townsend walked into my office in 1980 and he asked me if I had 15 minutes. I said of course. He said, “I’m interviewing the management team because I’m going to join the Board of Directors at this company and I always want to speak with the management before I do.”

“Oh please come in and sit.”

I looked at my watch: 15 minutes, not a problem. Five hours later he left my office. I was stunned. I had never been in the presence of that much energy. He told me about his book Up the Organization; I hadn’t heard of it. At five o’clock that night, I ran out to the nearest bookstore and I got it. I read it from cover to cover that night; it changed my life.

I had always had the same ideologies, that same thoughts about leading people. But his book gave me a structure of framework that I could hang it on and I used it as a guideline for the rest of my life and I’m still using it.

The same year I was overlooked for a promotion to be the CEO of the company. I was in my 30s, I thought I was ready; the company didn’t. Bob Townsend suggested that I further my education; that was a good idea. I said, “Well, maybe I’ll go do an MBA.” He says, “No, never do an MBA.” There’s too many managers already. The world is short of leaders; we don’t need any more managers. Managers, leadership I thought that was same.

I would hear people say “I manage six people”, “I lead a team of six people” must be the same. 32 years later, I’m here tonight to tell you it’s not the same. Management is control; in business we call it the Triple Constraint of management. There’s three things and only three things that you could control. You can control quality, time and money. Whichever one of those three takes precedent, the other two will suffer. If quality drives your organization or your product or your service, the other two will suffer. It takes more time and more money to create the quality.

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If price determines your product or service, then you will have to give up the quality and do what’s much cheaper. If time — you have to do it in time, to do it quickly it will cost you more money and the faster you go the less quality you will have. So control is the management, the interplay of time, quality, and money.

So where are people? Well, people are come under leadership. There’s a big difference. In World War II, Dwight Eisenhower was the Allied supreme commander of all the forces. He would train his generals. He would take a chain and stack it up on the table. And then he would ask the generals if I push that chain, which way will it go? And he would hear a lot of answers. The correct answer is you really don’t know.

But he said that if I took the chain and I picked it up by the end, and I pull the chain which way will it go? The answer is it will follow you. And there is the essence of leadership: if you push the people, down deep inside you really do not know which way they’ll go or which way what they’re really thinking. But if you can lead them and get them to follow you, then you have the skill that everybody should have, to be a leader.

I went to China, lived there for 13 years. I built a company, started with handful of people and we ended up with 8,000 people. We had to build a factory to house 8000 people. On occasion I would go to Guangzhou and walk around and inspect the site. I have a technical background, so I felt I had a little bit of expertise in construction. And one monsoon rainy afternoon we’re walking along by the foundation and I look down in the ditch and I see five or six men working and they’re installing a sewer pipe. And they had a level and I’m looking down and I see that they’re making the pipes level, while I have enough technical background to know that a level pipe’s not going to flow. And it’s going to get buried under the foundation, so we’re going to have lifetime problems, because we’ll never get to this to fix it.

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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.

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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.

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