Authors in August: Leadership With Les McKeown

Les McKeown, president and CEO of Predictable Success, joins the Rule Breaker Investing podcast to talk about his powerful definition of leadership and how it can lead to predictable success.

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This video was recorded on Aug. 17, 2022.

David Gardner: It is August for Rule Breaker Investing, which means it’s Authors in August for my fellow Rule Breaker listeners. Last week we talked about game design with Jesse Schell. This week, we go to a topic of just as much interest for me, but with a lot more ink about it. That would be leadership. Leadership — the word gets tossed around in infinite contexts every day by people who may or may not even be using the same definition as the person they’re speaking to. In his essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote that meaningless words “do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader.” I leave it to you dear listener to determine whether leadership has become a meaningless word today.

If it is one such example, well, we’re going to rein that in this week. We’re going to be really specific. My guest, Les McKeown, author of the book, Do Lead, has an incredibly prosaic and powerful definition which drives his book and all of his thinking. Frankly, now mine too, and I hope it’ll be helpful for you and you’re thinking about a topic that is both so threadbare on the one hand, but also so important. Only on this week’s Rule Breaker Investing.

Welcome back to Rule Breaker Investing. Thanks so much for joining in with me and my pal Les McKeown. I’m really delighted to share, Les, with you. Les is a longtime business thinker, actor, and author, and somebody who’s been in and around the Motley Fool giving us some good advice for the better part of really more than a decade right now. I’m so excited to share with you Les McKeown and his book, Do Lead. We’re going to get into that in a second. I do just want to say, I hope you enjoyed Jesse Schell last week, The Art of Game Design. I was saying as I did last week, I’ll repeat this week: Not everybody cares that much about games. Most people I know definitely don’t care as much about games as I do. Therefore, the topic of game design could arguably be even more niche than that, and yet I really think, and I hope it came out of last week’s conversation: Capital D Design, the principles of good design which yes, need to run through all of the best games being designed today, but also run through buildings, intellectual frameworks, companies, the list goes on. If you’re a meta listener and a meta thinker, then you can take last week’s short course on game design and apply it to many other things besides. Thanks again to Jesse for joining in.

Before I get started with Les, I want to mention next week our final Author in August. I’m not going to say best for last — she is awesome, she is really great, but I love all my authors this month. But Candice Millard will be back to Rule Breaker Investing. She’s written a wonderful book called River of the Gods. The true story of the great race for the discovery of the source of the Nile in the 19th century. It is like each of Candice’s books — I mentioned her, actually, in Books, Books, Books on Aug. 3, the podcast that opened up this month, Authors in August where I talked about some of my favorite books and authors, I mentioned Candice. At the time I wasn’t sure whether she’d be able to fit us in. She’s been away a lot this summer, but the good news is she is, and Candice Millard will be on Rule Breaker Investing with you next week.

Now, without further ado, let’s focus on this week’s topic: leadership with Les McKeown.

Les McKeown is the founder and CEO of Predictable Success. He first began to recognize recurring growth patterns early in his career as a serial entrepreneur, in addition to being involved in the launch of more than 40 companies before he was 35. Les, we need to talk briefly about that, but let me finish my intro first. He was at the same time a founding elder in a fast-growing church while serving on the board of a number of charities and not-for-profits. He then founded a successful business incubator which became a multinational. He was increasingly struck by the similarity of issues faced by all growing organizations. He began to codify that pattern recognition, understanding these repeating patterns of growth. That led to his best-selling book, Predictable Success: Getting Your Organization on the Growth Track–and Keeping It There. That book was in 2010. I think I read it in 2011. I think I probably read it again. I loved it, and I think I’ve known Les for more than 10 years now. He’s certainly helped us out at the Motley Fool. Many of his concepts, if they’re lenses, they are the lenses we’re wearing around Fool HQ, “pince-nez,” and we see things Les’ way because he helped us do that. Les is the kind of man I should be having on this podcast at least once every four years, and it’s time to welcome him back because Les, you were last on March 21, 2018. Welcome back to Rule Breaker Investing.

Les McKeown: Thanks for having me back, David, it’s great to be here. Hi, everybody.

David Gardner: And you are saying hello from your country perch, it seems. You used to be in Washington, D.C. resident. Les, where are you these days, ish?

Les McKeown: I am on the Eastern Shore in Maryland and I am a COVID emigrate like so many people. I had been in a beautiful place in D.C., which I thought I’d never ever leave. But I used to bail out at the weekends, cause D.C. is a different place on the weekends than it is during the week. And I had found a beautiful little place up on the Eastern Shore. I look out over the Chesapeake Bay, and when COVID hit, I sort of “got stuck” here. The draw of D.C. diminished, and I ended up buying a place and relocated here permanently, and I just love it.

David Gardner: Well, I’m so happy to hear that, and that has really been made possible, I think, by COVID. There are a lot of horrible things that we’ve had in the last few years, but some amazing changes as well. It seems as if a lot of our employees these days are not living where they were when they were commuting to our offices, sometimes driving an hour back and forth. Les, I’m dialing in from North Carolina today. It’s a reminder that some of these jobs, we can do from anywhere.

Well, it’s a delight to have you back to Rule Breaker Investing. Les, we’re going to be focusing on your book, Do Lead. Now, it’s a 2014 book, and it’s on a topic that to me is a word that can be used to mean almost anything and everything. It seems sometimes leadership — we’re going to talk about that in connection with your book, but I wanted to start by talking about Do Books because I think a lot of Americans aren’t aware of this series. I just thought, “Oh, yeah, Les has written a book called Do Lead, which I read and loved several years ago.” Re-read it in advance of this conversation this week, and it said it’s number 8 or 9 in the Do series. That caused me to raise an eyebrow. Les, what are the Do Lectures and the Do Books?

Les McKeown: Well, as you intimated, the Do Books are really an outgrowth from something called the Do Lectures. To compress that story, Do Lectures is an event that happens each year — I’m going to pretend COVID never happened, so it’s always happened, each year, a slight break — in the wilds of Wales. Wales is the bit of the United Kingdom that sticks out to the left of England. The Do Lectures started by a wonderful, wonderful guy, one of the greatest entrepreneurs I know — one of my very, very few, limited, two or three true heroes in today’s entrepreneurial world. His name is David Hyatt. He makes world-class denim jeans. He’s really brought an old industry back to life. The town that he does this in, in Wales, was the center of jeans making, and then died. He has gone back and he’s brought back what he calls the old masters, the people who had learned that. He’s making beautiful handmade jeans. He started the Do Lectures, which are essentially TED Talks with sheep. [LAUGHTER] That’s basically what it is.

You go out to his massive farm. You live in a yurt for a few days, and he personally curates a panel of speakers each year across a massively wide spectrum of topics. In fact, Motley Fool were, coincidentally, partially responsible for me speaking at Do Lectures way back in 2011. And the reason is this — that our good mutual friend, David Allen of Getting Things Done fame, had been asked to speak in the inaugural year of Do Lectures, which was the year before I spoke. And they ask speakers to recommend speakers for the next year. And David and I had been talking, and we talked about Motley Fool, because I know you’d had him on your guest author program, which I then spoke on as well, and David and I have since become great friends. He became a client, we worked together. But he recommended me to Do Lectures. Long story short, I went and spoke at the Do Lectures, had a wonderful time. I’ve been back four times since just as a guest, I love it so much.

About the third or fourth year or so, by 2012 I think, David hooked up with a wonderful woman, Miranda, who had this idea of curating a range of books around selected Do Lecture topics. My first book, Do Lead was selected for that. They’ve now got a raft of about 35, 36 books, I believe, in total. Do is obviously this action focus. These are slim books. They’re literally made to fit in your jeans back pocket, that you can read them in one sitting if you want to. So I wrote Do Lead, as you’ve mentioned, 2014. Then in 2017, I wrote my second Do Book which is Do Scale, which is all about scaling your organization.

David Gardner: It makes it a lot of sense that they would reach back out to you, Les, because these are topics that have formed the foundations of your career.

Les McKeown: It’s my life’s work. The listeners will have worked out from your introduction that I’m about 138 years of age. I’m very fortunate, and I mean this, I’m not being glib. I’m very blessed that, in my case, my life’s work has genuinely added up to the point where it’s two plus two equals a lot more than five. I was so limited in my abilities when I was younger that I’ve only ever had one track that I could go down. I didn’t have the option to do a zillion different things, so I ended up doing this. I help leaders grow their organizations. It’s all I do, and I love it. As you say, the two books really summarize my life’s work. It’s helping leaders grow.

David Gardner: Just closing it up on Do Books then before we move on, for Americans, again, I had not heard of the Do Lectures in Wales. They sound lovely. They turn into books these days as well. I was likening it in my own mind to the Dummies books. This or That for Dummies. It feels a lot of Americans would know that brand. It feels as if that’s what’s happening, except that these are even tighter, slimmer books, very focused on action. But otherwise, lovely branding, consistent from one to the next. I’m delighted they reached out and asked you to write Do Lead, because I really enjoyed your book lesson.

I think we need to get out of the way right now that you are not affecting a Northern Irish accent just to sound intelligent. Is that true or not?

Les McKeown: Well, actually, I’m just back from visiting my youngest daughter and my grandson. One of the things that happens when I visit my family is they tell me to stop talking in this stupid American accent, as they put it. [LAUGHTER] So I’m stuck. I grew up in Northern Ireland, as you said. I’ve been here now 23 years. I’m a U.S. citizen. I got my American citizenship in 2016, I’ve got my U.S. passport. But my accent has decided not to fully relocate. It’s stuck halfway between everywhere. And it works, so I’ll stick with it.

David Gardner: It sure does. Let’s go to definitions of leadership, because since we’re talking this week, that’s our focus — leadership. How can we not think briefly of: How did Drucker define leadership? Or Warren Bennis, somebody whose book on becoming a leader I really enjoyed? Les, I’m talking to you mainly this week. Neither Bennis nor Drucker is still with us, but I thought it would still be fun to introduce their definitions of leadership before we go to someone — you — who likes to poke holes at the conventional wisdom that exists out there in the world, in this case, this week about leadership. Warren Bennis said this: “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” If you were giving traditional school marks to that particular definition of leadership, what would you give Warren Bennis for capacity to translate vision into reality?

Les McKeown: 2. I guess we’re going on a pan scale, are we?

David Gardner: Well, I was thinking A to F, so 2 left me confused.

Les McKeown: 2 out of 10.

David Gardner: 2 out of 10. We’ll give him a D-minus. What is tragically wrong about that?

Les McKeown: Well, first of all, Warren Bennis is a fine man.

David Gardner: Genius.

Les McKeown: Ninety percent of his stuff is superb. To answer what’s wrong with it, let me tell you why I wrote the book. I am not a flamethrower, I’m not interested in just questioning conventional wisdom. I spend most of my life being a complete rule follower. I live a very boring existence. If I’m told to do a thing, I’ll do it. I don’t go around throwing flames. But the world that I live in depends on us knowing what we each mean when we talk about two important things. One is leadership, which we’re going to spend our time talking about today. The other one happens to be the word “scale,” which has been equally ruined of any genuinely shared meaning, and that’s why I would do. But in Do Lead, I work with leaders — that’s what I do. If I’m talking about leadership, you’re talking about leadership, maybe I’m working with a full executive team, we’re all talking about leadership, by and large, it’s like that story you’ve heard about the four folks who were blindfolded and each led up to an elephant and one of them grabs the ear, describes this big leafy thing like a tree, one of them grabs the trunk and another one grabs the leg. It’s sort of like that. I wanted to bring a consistency of definition for practical reasons — Do Books, right? — so that we could then talk about it knowing what we were talking about.

The second thing is — I know we’re going to talk about this, separately in a minute or two — but there’s so much ridiculous mythology baked into our concepts of leadership, and this, as I’ll share in a minute, is where I have a problem with Warren’s definition. That it really removes it from the world that most of us live in. It abstracts it into something that’s aspirational, and leadership isn’t that. I have a definition of leadership that has worked for me for 35 years. It is the most boring thing I’ll say on this podcast. In fact, we may have to issue an alert noise when I’m finished saying it to waken our listeners back up again, because the rest of it’s going to be worth listening to. But it’s boring because it just happens to be true, and sometimes the truth is fascinating, and sometimes it’s mundanely boring.

I actually say this over and over again: Brilliance is built on the mundane. Brilliance is built on the mundane. Here’s something mundane, which is my definition of leadership. It’s “any act that gets a group of two or more people closer to their common goals.” Just say it one more time. Leadership is any act that gets a group of two or more people — because leaders have to have followers, they’ve got to be people you’re leading — closer to their common goals. That’s it. That’s why I have the difficulty I have with … and it’s pure Warren. Who am I to make these sorts of judgments?

David Gardner: The man wrote 30 books on leadership, Les.

Les McKeown: Right. And the content and all of those is great. It just they happened to be based around the mythological definition, oh, the word “vision,” oh, the word “translate.” BS. Yes, that is part of leadership, but we’ll talk, I’m sure about some of the myths behind leadership…

David Gardner: Yes, we will.

Les McKeown: … and one of the myths is that the tip of the iceberg, the stuff that we read the stories about, the stuff that’s fancy and flashy — that that’s the whole of leadership. It is the most tiny little sliver of acts of leadership that happens every single day, and we just don’t see.

David Gardner: To show my cards, I am bought in to the McKeown definition of leadership. The reason I’m featuring your book this month, Authors in August, is because I love what you’ve done. I agree with you. Bennis who received a 2 out of 10, which is really, I mean, that’s not a D-minus, that’s an F. That’s actually an F-minus, I think.

If you didn’t like Bennis’ definition maybe because it’s too high-minded and too restrictive, wow, I’m wondering what you’re going to give Drucker. Let’s do this one. It’s a little bit longer. Listen carefully, dear Fools. “Leadership,” Drucker wrote, “is the lifting of a man’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a man’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a man’s personality beyond its normal limitations.” Les, your grade marks for Peter Drucker’s definition of leadership?

Les McKeown: 2.1. [laughs] This is paining me more than anything, because Peter Drucker is literally my touchstone, my lodestone. I think he’s an incredible writer. The world is a lesser place without him. His stuff is superb, as you just read. Even if you haven’t read any Drucker, you know more of Drucker than you think because his cadences have just fallen into organizational growth and leadership vocabulary, and he writes beautifully as you just said. But here’s the thing. If you and I were in a building that was on fire and somebody showed leadership, screw what you just read on. [laughs] They kick a freaking door open and we get out. I’m not going to ask you to do it, but now read Peter Drucker’s definition. It’s a very attractive subset that those of us who may have had the opportunity to occasionally do that will say, “Yes, of course, it is.”

Those of us who read and are force-fed those stories of the football game that’s won in the last minute by the fantastic play — was the coach the genius for coming up with the strategy, or was that QB the leader for making it happen? But what about that 257 tiny little acts of leadership that, if they hadn’t happened before the last-minute Hail Mary, the last-minute Hail Mary would’ve been pointless, because you’re only one point behind because of all that other stuff. Yes, Warren’s definition, Peter Drucker’s definition, anybody else, you’re going to get us a lawsuit from their estate [laughs] — all of their definitions are great. But they’re a tiny little highly attractive subset of the boring, mundane generality of leadership, which we have to recognize because if you can’t build it in your organization… if you want to depend on people doing that thing that you read out to scale your organization, you are screwed because you have people at the front line dealing with your customers, and your clients, and your congregation, day and daily, who are in the daily equivalent of a building that’s on fire, and the customer whose plane just got delayed just wants the door opened, so they can get in.

David Gardner: There’s no time, Les, there’s no time for the lifting of a man’s vision to higher sights and the raising of a man’s performance to a higher standard? We’re having fun here. Let’s move on.

Les McKeown: Yeah, that’s true. Go ahead. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for that, David. I’m just saying that’s not all of it.

David Gardner: Having read your book, I know that you respect that. You recognize that that is leadership, and it’s heroic leadership. It’s just that heroic leadership isn’t all of leadership, and that’s where we’re headed next, Les.

So the first four chapters of “Do Lead” — and it’s an eight-chapter book, as you said, it fits in someone’s back pocket. I recommend this book to everybody. The first four chapters have you playing the role of the capital-F Fool — something that every one of my listeners would recognize is complimentary from me because capital-F Fools challenge conventional wisdom, find something better and share that out. We break the rules. I think one of the reasons I loved you, Les, is because you’re a fellow Rule Breaker. So the first four chapters of your eight-chapter book, you’re simply taking shots at what everybody else thought about leadership. In chapter 1 — we’ve just covered it, but I’ll give you an opportunity to speak to it an another minute or two if you’d like to — Myth No. 1, chapter 1: If I’m summarizing, the concept of leadership, you wrote, has been hijacked by the media, and represented as meaning “heroic leadership.”

Les McKeown: Yes. I pinpointed to a pretty precise moment when what was already happening turned into a trend that engulfed our ability to really see what true leadership is. It was the first Iraq war, which some of us [laughs] are old enough to remember, what we call in our Western world the first Iraq war. There were many Iraq wars before, but the George H.W. Bush Iraq war. One of the things that you may recall, some of our older listeners will recall is, that was the coming of age of CNN. CNN really came to fruition at that point because it was perfect for 24-hour rolling news, which we really didn’t have in any substantive sense until that. That then, you add that to the growing impact of the Internet. Now we have this insatiable need for wall-to-wall, gripping stories. Before, there was a newspaper, and it had only so much print, and it had to have classified ads in it, and it had to have sport, and it had to have this. So there were a few big stories. Now, everything’s got to be a heroic story. Everything’s got to have an arc. As our friend Donald Miller would tell us in StoryBrand, arcs are hugely compelling things, so we’ve got to have an arc. What happens then is we tell the stories of all of the things that our definitions refer to, and they’re great. Who doesn’t want to hear about Sully? You remember [him] bringing the plane down in Hudson bank?

David Gardner: In the Hudson River.

Les McKeown: Who didn’t want to hear that? Who didn’t want to watch a movie where Tom Hanks is doing something incredible? It’s all super. But it is — and to your listeners, I’m making a triangle with my fingers — it’s the very, very tip of the iceberg of what leadership is. Most leadership is not heroic. If you only ever reward heroic leadership in your organization, you won’t grow the way you want to. So that was the first myth that leadership has to be heroic. It doesn’t have to be. I gave an example in the book where I talk about in the day that wrote that chapter, I just go through the first four leadership stories that are in my media churn at the time. And it’s that — it’s heroic arcs of people doing remarkable things, all of which is great. Then I sat down and thought as I was writing that evening, what were the four first leadership acts I encountered that day? And they were ridiculously mundane things. Like, my wife, who worked with me at the time … my ex-wife, who worked with me at the time — maybe those two things go together, I don’t know. She gave up the use of her car because mine was in the shop so that we could get to a client presentation. That is somebody helping a group of two or more people get closer to their common goals.

David Gardner: Your definition of leadership.

Les McKeown: There is a client I talked to who suddenly realized that maybe she didn’t need to interrupt every time she had a great idea when she was talking to one of her direct reports, because they might have a great idea. Very mundane thing, it was an act of leadership, because it’s helping two or more people — she and her direct report — get closer to their common goals. So I talk about the mundanity of leadership and how it is fantastic. I give the story of a barista in the Starbucks that I worked at, that I wrote most of the book at, and I would watch him, and he would do the most mundane things. But that was a well-run Starbucks because of the mundane things, not the splashy stuff.

David Gardner: Yeah, somebody leaves a cup on the table and he jumps out from behind the bar and grabs the cup, tosses it, cleans the table real quick with the swipe, and he’s back making coffee.

Les McKeown: And everybody had a better experience. Everybody gets closer to their common goals. The staff of a better time — closer to their common goals, the folks they’re using the Starbucks have a better time — the customers, closer to their common goals. That’s what leadership is. We’ll talk, I’m sure a little bit, about how you can make this in any organization. If you can get your folks to see that — that leadership is not necessarily heroic — it then leads us on to looking at some of the other myths. It’s not necessarily elite, doesn’t have to be something you do with a title, which I’m sure you’re going to ask me about.

David Gardner: Yes, I am. In fact. Well, we’re going to move on to myth No. 2, chapter 2, but I do just want to say one more time, Les’ definition of leadership. It’s helping any group of two or more people achieve their common goals. Bam. That’s it. Helping any group of two or more people achieve their common goals.

Les McKeown: Can I put it up a little on that? It’s not even that sweeping, David. It’s any act that gets two or more people closer to their common goals. It doesn’t have to be that completion act. It doesn’t have to be the thing that makes it happen. If you do something that helps two or more people get closer to their common goals…

David Gardner: Lovely.

Les McKeown: You’re doing a project launch. Somebody has got to go and look up a whole bunch of words because you’re doing it in a language you don’t understand, that you’re not too sure whether or not you’re using the right words. Somebody comes back, they’ve Googled the whole thing, got it all done. That’s a not-so-random act of leadership that got you closer to your common goals. Is the launch done? No. But it was a not-so-random act of leadership.

David Gardner: Well said. Thank you for that. Let’s move to the second myth and that is … well, chapter 2, you’ve entitled: The Four Leadership Styles. Now, for those who remember my back catalog, who remember Les appearing on the show four years ago, we talked some about these four leadership styles. I know you’re going to go there. So, for some of us, we’ll rehear the story of the visionary, the operator, the processor, and the synergist. These are four very important, we could call them “business personality types.” Actually, really what they are is they’re leadership types, styles. But specifically, the myth you’re going after in chapter 2 is that to be a leader, you have to be a certain type of person — we might even call that person a swashbuckler, Les.

Les McKeown: Yes. The chapter on the four styles is an important and necessary detour. It doesn’t give us much of a through line to where we’re going to go, but it’s a really important detour, and it’s specific for this reason. I did not see this early on in my career. I had both these things going on, was working with these four leadership styles, which I’ll very quickly go through in a second or two, and I’m working out what the definition of leadership is. I hadn’t really made the connection I’m about to make, but it reflects back on our heroic thing again. These four styles, which I didn’t make them up, I just put words to things that happened. This is just how it is. I’m not pushing anything that I developed. No interns were used or harmed in this, it’s just what happened. The listeners if they’ve been in any organizations, on any businesses of any size, they’ll have seen all of these styles. They probably just call them different things. The four styles, real quickly.

We have the visionary, the easiest one to imagine. Big sweeping, 30,000-feet swashbuckler types. They are the ones that typically found organizations because they’ve got a high-risk profile, they’re prepared to take risks. They see things, they generate. They want to make this stuff happen. It’s the visionaries who are there typically, at the outset. And they, knowing themselves, again, if they don’t even use my terminology, they’ll still know, “I can do the dirty-fingernail detailed work, but it doesn’t really turn me on.” They typically very early on in any business’ growth, go find themselves some of what I call operators. An operator — the second style. The visionary goes and finds operators because operators just go through breeze block walls. They just make stuff happen. They go in a straight line. The only thing they’re interested in is completion.

So we got our visionary, who’s the starter, we’ve got our operator, who’s the finisher. And between them, that’s great. In the early relatively uncomplicated stages of growth, that’s all you need: a visionary with an orchestra of operators.

Visionary, Monday, back from a conference, three brilliant ideas. Operators: “Yeah, boss!” Go make it happen. Then you reach a more complex stage of growth, I’ll talk in any detail about all of that. But at some point, you need to bring a third style in, which I call the processor style. The processor is not about all action. The processor is about: How do we codify this? How do we standardize this? How do we make this replicable, repeatable? How do we give this consistent quality? None of which you need to care about really that early on because just sheer force of effort does all of that by tap dancing like crazy — the visionary and the operators are innovating and improvising and somehow making it happen. Then we get to a size where we can’t do that anymore. We’ve got to put systems in place.

David Gardner: You’ve got to bring in the accountants. You’ve got to bring in the HR people.

Les McKeown: HR, quality control, legal — all of the stuff that will help you do this right. Warehouse managers, people that sit down and plan out your layout of your office. It’s just simple stuff, but what’s needed from systems and process.

Now here’s the thing. For the very first time, our leadership styles don’t gel. Visionaries and operators can finish each other’s sentences. They’ve built a lot of sweat equity, they’ve worked hand in glove. Processors aren’t really that. They’re not typically as evangelical about pleasing the customer and wowing and going fast, fast, fast, fast. Processors want to go slow, do it right. They want to measure twice, cut once. There tends to be a bit of a conflict and this final bit was the one that took me the longest to really see. Businesses, organizations get to this stage I call Predictable Success, which is essentially the ability to be able to put your foot on the accelerator and make a car really go forward — to be able to scale.

A fourth style, a learned style. The other three styles are natural, they’re native to us. A fourth, learned, style sort of emerges as we work. This, I call it the synergist style. What that basically says is, if we keep trying to just pander to the visionaries, we’re going to go crazy. We keep pandering to the operators, everybody’s going to leave because they’re just so ruthless. If we pander to the processors, we’re going to die because we can’t have more and more and more systems and processes. We need these three as a brains trust to make the best decisions for the business as a whole. And so the synergist style emerges that says, I don’t have to scratch my vision itch, I don’t have to scratch my operator itch, I don’t have to scratch my processor itch all the time when we’re talking about non-trivial things for the business. We’ll do what’s best for the business. With all of that, here’s why this is important for what we’re talking about. The visionary style gets the press.

David Gardner: Elon Musk? Does Elon Musk get some press?

Les McKeown: Where we have to talk about Steve Jobs and it’s in all our contracts, we’ve got to do that. [laughs] You look at any leader that gets the column inches, the internet yards, the 24-hour coverage — they’re typically visionary leaders because they’re incredible to watch, and they build a story arc, and they all do that heroic thing.

Next come the operators because that’s the movie that gets made about pulling the victory from the jaws of defeat at the very last minute. And our processers — when did you ever watch a really gripping movie about an architect or a CPA? Our synergists sometimes will be in a B role in the movie. They’re in the background keeping the team going, exciting them. But the reality is that the acts of leadership that we need have to come from everyone, everyone. You can’t turn everybody into a swashbuckling visionary, and if you do, you’ll kill your business. What you’ve got to do instead is find a model of leadership, a definition and a way of talking about and rewarding it that encourages the operators, processors, and synergists to make not-so-random acts of leadership every minute of every day. That way you beat your competition hands down. So that’s where chapter 2 comes in.

On a final note, there’s a whole other book about all of that — it’s called The Synergist, and that’s all it’s about. I wrote about nothing but the V.O.P.S. styles. Listener, if your ears are tickled with all of that and you really want to get the bee’s knees on it, it’s my second book which is called The Synergist.

David Gardner: Speaking of the bee’s knees, by the way, I think there’s a Do Book called Do Beekeeping. The Do Books are doing everything these days.

Les McKeown: You can live your life out of Do Books. There’s Do Bread, [laughs] you make bread. There’s Do Grief. I think it’s called Do Grief, which is how to grieve people. It’s a fantastic series of books, it really is.

David Gardner: A reminder that we’re living in a world with many abundant choices and always new things coming along. Did you notice this month that ESPN is now broadcasting the Excel championships? And I’m thinking, you said, Les — they’ve turned Excel into a competitive sport — and you were saying, has there ever been a movie about a processor leader? And I’m thinking, maybe the story of the Excel championships.

Les McKeown: It could be. It could well be. You might be right, it might be the first.

David Gardner: So, chapter 2 — and we’re going to move to chapter 3 and 4 now — but chapter 2 is really laying down the track that you just gave us, those four styles. It’s a reminder that there’s not a single type of leader. Elon Musk, or Howard Schultz from Starbucks, or Steve Jobs, or the list goes on, Winston Churchill — those aren’t the only leaders, and for a lot of us, that’s an eye-opener.

Les McKeown: If all we had was Winston Churchills, we’d have lost the war. [laughs] If all Apple ever had was Steve Jobses, we would not have heard of them. You can’t just have that. But because they’re usefully used for PR purposes, don’t confuse that with the need for leadership throughout the whole organization.

David Gardner: Thank you, and well said. Of course, it’s there in black and white in Do Lead. I want to move forward to myths 3 and 4, just put them both out there for you to speak to. Just in case my dear listeners are thinking all we’re going to do is Blast myths. No, we’re going to follow that up with a real coaching on leadership, and how to identify it in your organization. This is Les’ life’s work. He’s an executive coach, he’s a business consultant.

By the way, I think something I appreciate about you Les is that from my own approach to investing, I’ve developed my own frameworks based on my own pattern recognition, and then just tried to share him out to the world, so I think you and I have a similar approach. A lot of start-ups and then venture capital that identifies those start-ups based on patterns and pattern recognition. So I think systems thinking is obviously a topic — we may not even touch on it this week — but it’s something that’s important to both you and me. Well, myths 3 and 4. Myth 3 — that you can only lead from the front, and myth No. 4 — that leadership is only revealed at times of crisis. Now, you’d be the first, Les McKeown, to say leadership does often happen from the front, and great leadership can indeed be revealed at times of crisis. But these are romantic, Hollywood-inspired versions of leadership, missing the 98% of it that actually wins wars.

Les McKeown: Right. Well, let’s take the first one, David, which is this myth that again has built up. It comes along with and is intimately linked to the notion of leadership being heroic, which then begins to pool out into “leadership has to be something that’s done by people who are acknowledged as leaders,” because if it’s this great heroic thing, then only the generals get to do it. Only the pilot gets to do it. Only the quarterback gets to do it. Only the C-suite get to do it. If you want to run your business like that, good luck. Because if the only people who get to lead in your organization are you and your colleagues in the C-suite, whether it’s two of you or 22 of you, you’re going to be pulling a very big rock uphill. Not only that, when the rock starts to slide, you’re the one who’s going to have to run around the other side and start to push it back up. You’ll never get to take a vacation, really. You will become the cap to your own growth.

Let me take a swipe at something that’s such an easy target, I’m going to apologize in advance, and I say it with love because part of the introduction that you gave — when I say what I’m about to say, you’ll see where it come from.

I work with a lot of faith-based and cause-based organizations. And a lot of churches, sadly, are a walking example of this. The only leaders are the ordained pastors or the people who are in the pastoral group. The same things happen in not-for-profits, where there’s this notion that leadership only exists when it comes with a title. And here’s the way it is, really, is people who have the title have to lead. You got the title, you’re getting the big bucks, you better step up. Right? I take that. Formal leaders do not get to abdicate. But it’s a very constricting definition if that’s all you work with. If you want a genuinely scale your organization, have people who are fulfilled, get the best out of everybody, do things that are revolutionary, you’ve got to beat that mindset and make sure your folks see. It’s all based on the definition. If leadership is — as it is, not as I believe it is, as it is — it isn’t that just because I said it or wrote it in the book, it is what it is. Leadership is any act that helps two or more people get closer to the common goal. That means anybody can lead at any time.

Somebody can see a thing — now, we’re going to come back in a moment. I don’t want to finish this section without talking about the huge need for alignment, for this not to be random purposeless stuff. I’ll come back to this in a second. But if our leadership definition is any act that gets two or more people close to their common goal, every member of a project team can execute a not-so-random act of leadership. They can step in and help with something. Go get a glass of water for somebody who needs to spend another 20 minutes working with this thing, and can’t get up off their seat. Go find the paper for the photocopier. Not-so-random acts of leadership, getting us closer to our common goals for the project, the team, the division, department, the organization as a whole. Second thing that flows from that, it’s part of the same topic that we’re talking about, is that means leadership doesn’t need to be permanent. It can be a temporary, momentary thing because you step out and you do a not-so-random act of leadership doesn’t mean to say, no, no, now I’ve got to be a leader. Like, the barista we were talking about was a guy I got to know a little bit. Last thing he wanted to be was a store manager. He didn’t want any title. That didn’t stop him from making not-so-random acts of leadership.

David Gardner: Such a great point, and it’s a reminder, what you’re doing, Les, is you’re democratizing leadership. It’s leadership for the rest of us. All of us. We’re all leaders. It’s sometimes a cliche. You and I, before we started our conversation offline today, we talked about how we’re a little bit tired of things like “vulnerability.” We understand the importance of it, but it’s getting overplayed. I think the card of how important it is to be vulnerable. Leadership itself has lost a lot of its meaning because it’s used too many different ways. But what you’re doing is, I think, you’re reminding us of something else I’ll sometimes say here, which is that we’re all leaders.

Les McKeown: I want to push back a little bit on that, David in that I’m not saying that this is like everybody gets a merit medal.

David Gardner: The green participation ribbon that I would receive for participating in things that I didn’t win?

Les McKeown: What I’m saying is that if you’re interested — and there are a lot of people not interested in showing any acts of leadership. Fine. I bump into people like that, and they just don’t want to do it, just want a quiet life.

David Gardner: They’re not going to read your book. Not everybody needs to read this book.

Les McKeown: They’re not going to listen to this podcast. They just want clock in a day, and I’m not going to make any value judgment about that. That just is what it is. I’m not going to say everybody is necessarily a leader. Secondly, there are some people who, if they just adopt that mantra in and of its own, are going to do an enormous amount of damage. I’m not saying everybody should. I’m saying everybody can. All you’ve got to do is recognize… well, first of all, you’ve got to be working in an environment that encourages this, and we might talk about it before we’re finished. But if you’re going to run an organization where this is encouraged and it can be seen, you’ve just got to do the work to make sure that you’re doing stuff that’s aligned. You’ve got to know what the common goals are. You can’t just decide, I’m going to go make everybody coffee. That could be the last…, you can’t just decide, I want to find the photocopier paper. That could be the last thing that needs done here. You’ve got to do your work. You’ve got to know what your common goals are. You’ve got to think through: Does this get us closer to our common goals? If so, go do it. It doesn’t have to be permanent. It can be a temporary, single one-off. What I talk about is building a culture of not-so-random acts of leadership that people can step up to if they wish.

David Gardner: I really appreciate that we’re about to reach an important phrase for you, Les McKeown: enterprise commitment. That’s where we’re headed as we talk about what real leadership is every day and that we can all participate in. But before we go there, you were alluding to something that was really important in your book. I can’t remember which page. It might’ve been chapter 3 or 4, but you’re talking about effective leadership. To quote the author back to himself, very simply, “Effective leadership is goal-oriented, not people-oriented.”

I have to admit as I read that and as you talk a little bit more about it in that chapter, I was thinking, “I think that’s a mistake I’m making.” A lot of the time, I’m a pleaser and I want everybody to have a good time. If you’re on my team, I’m pretty sure we’re going to have fun because I am purposing fun, but you’re helping remind me that if I want, with Drucker, to raise my own performance to my highest standard, then I need to be more goal focused than just people focused.

Les McKeown: That part of it’s a subset of the definition that we’ve given, that leadership is goal focused, because we’ve said it 100 times now, it’s all about helping people get closer to the common goals. When I then add the bit, it’s not people-focused, it’s the area where I get the most push back — and I understand it. Let me be clear about what I mean.

Sometimes the goal is to help people, but how that happens depends on what the overall goal is. We’re in a burning building. I don’t want you trying to find out how I feel about it before you kick the door open. We can do that later. If we’re a team that have had four losses on the road in a row, part of the goal may well be to come in and sit and talk with the team and then motivate them and encourage them and get them all up and going.

David Gardner: Singing “Kumbaya” together is not enough.

Les McKeown: But also, [laughs] be honest, why are you doing that? To win the next game. Now, there’s a separate thing. It’s called mentorship. If what you want to do is just help people and you don’t want to be constricted by goal delivery, be a mentor. You can be both, have an overlap. But I meet a lot of leaders who really struggle with embracing leadership as goal oriented, which it has to be. That’s why you’re leading these — to get somewhere. What I say is, that’s fine. That’s a wonderful, noble sentiment. But engage in mentorship. Because that moves a little away from direct goals and say: How can I just help you as a person? There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not leadership. It may overlap, but gets a little woozy. But leadership has got to be goal oriented. It’s to deliver what you’re there to do. That can be as high minded or as low minded as you want.

David Gardner: It’s just entirely consistent with your definition of leadership, which is helping any group of two or more people make progress toward their common goal. It really is that goal orientation, and a people-focused person like me needs to respect that and keep that in mind in order for me to be my best leader.

Well, I did mention the phrase “enterprise commitment.” That’s where we’re headed. I’m going to quote the author back to himself once more, but this is a phrase I have introduced to any number of Motley Fool employees as they start in their first few months at the Motley Fool. I said, “There’s this friend of mine, Les McKeown, he wrote this wonderful book called Predictable Success.” By the way, for anybody who’s enjoying this conversation this week, predictablesuccess.com is Les’ website.

Looks like I can get a free consultation with you possibly, Les, if I click a certain button on your website. That’s how you find Les and find more here. But I say that these new employees, “My friend Les has observed dozens and dozens of start-ups, and he saw the ones that failed and most do. He saw the ones that succeeded and he said, what characterized the ones that succeeded more often than not, it was that people at that organization were always working not just for themselves or for their boss or their team or their division. They were looking and thinking across the entire enterprise as they made their decisions and took their actions one day to the next.” It’s not possible to keep that top of mind all the time, but to quote the author now, “when working in a team or group environment, I will place the interests of the enterprise ahead of my own.”

Les McKeown’s enterprise commitment. And the more organizations that have people saying that, the much more likely — for-profit, not-for-profit — they’ll predictably succeed.

Les McKeown: Yeah, the enterprise commitment is really the other side of the coin to our leadership definition. It literally … literally is not right because it isn’t the other side of the coin [laughs]. But it’s metaphorically the other side of the coin of the definition of leadership.

Let me just put it quickly in context. Just to repeat it one more time. When a group of two more people — that means if I’m on an email chain, if I’m making a comment in Slack, if I met somebody outside the water cooler. Doesn’t mean just if I’m in a formal meeting around a table, all that sort of stuff. If I’m doing anything where I’m interacting with other people — alert, 98.888% of the time you spend at work — then I’ll put the interests of the enterprise, the business, the organization, the church, maybe the project, the division, the department, whatever I’m engaged in at the moment, I put interests of that thing ahead of my own. Now, a lot of folks, particularly our synergist leaders, will be saying, “Really, what? You get paid to write that down?”

Or people who are in the early stages of growth, what I call the early struggle or the fun stages of growth, will say, “Really? You’ve got to write that down?” Because at that stage, life is so existential. The existence of this business is so much at stake. Nobody thinks any other way. And the notion of writing that down would be like, back then, trying to design an org chart. You’d say, “Are you crazy? We just do the things that need done.”

But eventually, at that stage of growth we talked about where you’ve got processors coming in, we’ve got complex systems, this whole thing has got complex. At that point, the clear-cut definition between what’s best for the organization as a whole and what’s going to be either random or best for me, begins to blur. So what we’re saying is this: OK, here’s our definition of leadership, you’re going to use this throughout the whole organization. It’s any act that gets a group of two or more people closer to a common goal. So a lean team could put that up: An act of leadership is any act that gets us closer to our lean goal, whatever that may be.

Now, the best folks who will respond to that will say, “OK, how do I best do that?” It starts by recognizing, you got to understand and commit to what the common goals are. And that’s where the enterprise commitment comes in. The enterprise commitment says, … OK, so to give our dumb little examples. If you say, you’re there with a group, they’re all working hard, and you just want a box of 12 doughnuts. And you say to everybody, “Everybody want a coffee? Going for a coffee run, going for a coffee run.” That’s not a not-so-random act of leadership. That’s not the enterprise commitment. You just want your 12-box of doughnuts. Now, that’s fine. Go get your doughnuts. Don’t even bother people, just go get your doughnuts. But that’s not an act of leadership in our definition. If you see everybody’s working like crazy and they’re all down for a coffee, and you’ve got five minutes, and you say, “I’m going to go on a coffee run, what can I get you all?” That’s a not-so-random act of leadership, because the enterprise commitment kicked in. You’re looking at your team and saying, what’s best for the team as a whole?

David Gardner: Sustenance.

Les McKeown: You’re quite right. Well, sustenance is always good to some extent, but it’s even better when it’s contributing to the enterprise development.

David Gardner: Absolutely. That’s a great example because it’s such a mundane thing, but you can see in one context, it’s arguably self-indulgent and, by the way, not very healthy. On the other hand, it’s actually exactly what the team needed to get them moving forward. Thank you for that, Les, I feel as if it’s now incumbent upon us to give a short course. As a fellow Fool, I’ve had you aiming and taking down the conventional wisdoms here, Les, but of course, you’ve done a wonderful job in here, we’ve alighted upon the enterprise commitment. You are an executive coach, you are a consultant. Could you give us the one-to-two-minute Knute Rockne leadership speech that doesn’t celebrate heroic leadership? But what have I missed so far in our conversation? What gaps do we have that you can give a little bit of talk to for our listeners?

Les McKeown: Well, I wrote Do Lead, I think you said at some point during our conversation, really for anybody in the organization. But it’s one thing for somebody in an organization to pick up a copy of Do Lead and read it and feel, “I get it, I see how I can contribute,” and maybe even think “That’s what they were talking about.” I don’t necessarily mean that the owners of their business or the C-suite read my book, but that they have this culture. I’ll talk about the specifics of what’s involved in that in just a second or two. The other thing is that I get genuinely heartbreaking emails every month from people — I read this and that’s all I’ve ever wanted to be able to do. I don’t particularly want to be the CEO, but I want to be in an environment where my ideas are valued, where I can do something I think is making a difference, even if it’s in a small way, even if it’s in a non-heroic fashion. But the place I work is never going to let me do that. Anyway, here’s why I see the transformation toward what I call a Do Lead organization typically works. First of all, you got to have a group of senior leaders who are self-aware, and who are competent in what they do. So they are leading well, but their self-awareness has led them to think, I really believe we could harness the power of leadership throughout our whole organization.

David Gardner: I love that, Les. Let me pause you there for a sec because you work with these organizations and you have systems thinking in mind — I don’t. Roughly what percentage of leadership teams for profit, not-for-profit, churches, all organizations. What percentage have self-aware leadership, in your rough estimation?

Les McKeown: Well, part of the difficulty I have in answering that, David … I’m going to answer, but I want to put a caveat in front of this. My personal experience — I just don’t want to talk from observation — but my personal experience is very impacted by self-filtering. Most of the leaders who approach me to help me work with them are necessarily self-aware, or they wouldn’t have reached out in the first place.

David Gardner: Makes sense.

Les McKeown: So I’ve got this world that I work in where it’s like 98%, and the other 2% are people who thought I was actually the lead singer in a pop group called the Bay City Rollers, which is a whole other story.

David Gardner: There was a Les McKeown, I checked that. Your alter ego.

Les McKeown: That’s a whole other podcast [laughs]. But my observation is, so the subset of that group is tiny. It’s probably between 5% and 10% of most organizations. There’s a whole swathe of organizations that just aren’t of a size where any of this has really kicked in yet. If you’re a start-up, you’ve got maybe five people, even up to about 10 people, a lot of this is just happening so organically by osmosis — you just hire people who are going to be doing this type of thing. You want people to ask forgiveness, not permission. It’s really only when you start getting into 15 and certainly by the time you’re at 20 people. You’ve got 20 or more people, you need this, because the natural tendency is not towards Do Lead leadership, it’s towards the heroic, the formal, the structured. You talk about leadership training programs. Who are they for? People we’re going to formally call leaders. Whoever gives leadership training programs to people who aren’t leaders or aren’t going to be? Well, everybody should, but it should be based on the definition that we’re talking about. The practicalities of it. There are two places where the rubber hits the road. This is like real-world stuff that has to happen.

The first thing is you got to get what I call your alignment pyramid rock solid. What I mean by the alignment pyramid is, if you think of a pyramid, and at the peak of it up there are the actions everybody takes every day. Every single person in your business takes between 15 and 50 non-trivial decisions every day. Those depend on what the job is. For the CEO, do we merge with this company? For a sales manager, do I hire this person? For a purchasing clerk, do I give this discount even though they paid a day late? For a janitor, do I empty all the trash cans tonight or just a few of them. Non-trivial, not do I have another cup of coffee? Every single person. You’ve got 100 people, you got an action cloud of at least 2,000 actions every day. Way down at the bottom of this pyramid, we’ve got your mission, vision, and values. Why you started this in the first place. Somehow, those actions, that big cloud that happens and repeats and responds every single day and gets bigger every day as you get bigger as an organization, has got to somehow turn wheels that get you closer to your mission, vision, and values.

And the way that we do that, I don’t want to teach all of this. But we start with our mission vision, values, and say, here’s a series of big goals. Here’s this year’s goals, next year’s goals. Big picture goals, usually revenue, EBITDA, that sort of stuff. Then we say, “Oh, well how are we going to get those?” We set some strategies, then we set some tactics. We’re not going to teach all of that. But here’s what happens in 90% of organizations, is the pyramid is not linked. There are holes all over it. It doesn’t add up. It’s not seamless. The strategies don’t really connect with the goals. Or we’re doing tactics that we knew two quarters ago aren’t really going to make it happen. Or we’re using a tool kit because we never really got a master social media that is missing three or four things we really should. So the whole thing tends to be there, but weak. You’ve got to tighten that up because you can’t empower people, which is what the second literal thing that has to happen.

It’s not a fancy word, empowerment. I hate how it’s been so drained of value. But really, Do Leadership is about empowering people to make not-so-random acts of leadership. Any act that will help a group of two more or people get to their common goals. But if your goals aren’t rock solid, clear, defined, and joined up, then all you’re doing is getting a whole bunch of donkeys and setting their tails on fire [laughs]. That’ll be disastrous. I hate to say this, but I do share it with the people that I’m closest to, and who I think are mature and adult enough to really take this — and you’re it in spades, David [laughs], I say to people: Do not implement this unless you’re absolutely sure that you want what it will do, because your people have got to be aligned, and they’ve got to be empowered, and you must do that work first.

If you have a group of unempowered, unaligned people, and you implement my principles, then your already-not-growing business — because you’ve got unaligned, unempowered people — will die on its feet. It’s the first thing you’ve got to do, really get that alignment pyramid tightened up. Your goals have got to be rock solid, your strategy has got to be really connected, and so on and so forth. Then you’ve got to work out what does it genuinely mean to empower people, which is really an enhanced version of delegation. That’s what we’re talking about here. That’s really when it comes down to it, is giving people the freedom and empowerment to work out what will get this group I’m working with, this team, this project, this division, the whole business, whatever my domain is, to empower people to work out what will get us closer to our common goals and then to do that.

David Gardner: You’re reminding me of the great importance of purpose and mission. Because whatever organization we’re talking about, the clearer the mission is, then obviously the easier it is to have alignment around that mission, and whether it’s picking stocks where I’m looking at the mission statement of the company before I pick the stock because I want to see if it’s real and authentic, if it’s stated and if people seem to be paddling that same direction or not. A lot of people don’t know this probably, although purpose junkies probably do. Tesla‘s mission stated to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. That is the actual mission statement of Tesla, and I think it’s authentic, and they happen to have chosen cars, and higher-end cars really, as their MO, but the purpose of Tesla anyway is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy and if you have everybody aligned around that, and then you’re empowering them, they’re definitely not donkeys running around with their tails on fire. Great image.

Les, thank you for that coaching, you’re not my formal executive or leadership coach. I recognize the great benefit of these people in the world, and I can see how well you do by your clients. I did want to give you a quick compliment as a writer, you’re a very spare writer. I think part of writing for the Do Books series is you can’t waste words, and it’s not just true of Do Lead, it’s true of all of your work, but I enjoy your combination of storytelling on the one hand, but then also a real respect for readers’ time, and so a Hemingway-like terseness that I appreciate about you, Les McKeown, thank you.

You tell two stories toward the end of your book. You tell more than that, but I wanted to highlight these two because they’re both great stories. One is about the benefit of starting small, and the other is about the benefit of starting big because at the end of Do Lead, you’re saying, you know what? I just want you dear reader to go do this, to go start, and some people might be paralyzed at that point and think, oh my gosh, but it would be so small or, well, what I’m thinking about is so big, I’m paralyzed by that, and you’re reminding us you could do either of those. You even say a little bit late in the book, you could start early. Some people do — 9 years old — or start late. Grandma Moses, you don’t use her as an example, but you recognize the appeal. Really, you’re saying at the end of the book: Just get started now. But if you would, please, Les, could you share start small and start big?

Les McKeown: Sure. Yes, as you beautifully summarized, all I want to do in the final sequence is to say: Look, don’t wait for a thing. If you’ve got the right environment, just start from wherever you are. And I take the four commonest points that we normally use as reasons to not get started. I’m too young, or I’m too old, so those are the two that I do at the back of the book. Then alongside that, start small and start big. Start small start big ones are two personal examples — actually, they’re all personal examples, but two very personal examples.

The start small one was way back in the early days of my consulting work. I then had a fellow entrepreneur as a co-partner, and we were going to open our first office abroad. We were back in the U.K. at that time, and we had been doing work out in the United States, and we needed to open a permanent office in San Francisco. We were trying to hire somebody to manage this, but the job description was such a mishmash of needing…. this person was going to be on their own. For technical reasons to do with the work that we did, they needed to come from Northern Ireland, but we were sending them out there, [and] because of the age they were, they were likely to be doing this as pretty much their first job or very soon thereafter. Yet we were asking them to lead an office that was going to grow very fast. So they had to be able to do the really gritty stuff. They’re going to have to find the office. It was literally greenfield stuff. They find the office, negotiate the lease, staff it, hire. It was a huge range of stuff. Will and I set a week aside, and I can still recall that week, and I still get the shivers. We’d got to about Thursday, and we’d seen so many people, and we were almost in the fetal position because nobody fitted. Our then joint-chaired secretary, we called Alicia back then, we’d say executive assistant — a young girl, straight out of college, and that’s what she was doing. She came in and did what she did.

She had done it, I think, five times every day, Monday through Thursday, which was, we finished an interview, so she came in, she gathered up our notes, which she would take off and type while we were interviewing the next one so we could read our notes. She refreshed our coffee, and then she’d sit down for five or 10 minutes. And she was the one who had done the pre-interviews for us. She’d give us her feedback on the person we were about to see based on her interaction with them. It still kills me now that it took us to Thursday afternoon when we’d interviewed about 20 people [laughs] when Will looked at me and he said, “Our new office manager for San Francisco has been walking in and out of here for the last four” — and he didn’t even get to finish the sentence, as soon as I said it. Alicia, (not a real name, I changed it for obvious reasons) had been conducting far-from-random acts of leadership for four days in front of our eyes. A group of two people trying to achieve their common goals. She had been facilitating that all the way along, and she’d been doing it in the exact ways we needed somebody to do it in the office. So she got the job, and she was there for many, many years, had a lovely time. Met her then became her husband out there, grew a marvelous office for us, and that was a superb success story. She started small. She didn’t even know she was doing it. She was just refilling the coffee cups and giving us a few comments.

David Gardner: Perfect example.

Les McKeown: It is. [laughs] The other story is one that doesn’t come until toward the end of the story in the book. At the time that I was living back in … I was born in Belfast and I grew up during the 30-year civil war that we had there, which was a very brutal war in which we went through one period of what was called tit-for-tat killings. So this is a conflict between Protestants on the one hand, Catholics on the other, and we had a terrible particular summer where essentially what would happen is one group would go find one member of the other group, just an innocent bystander, and shoot them one night. And then there’d be at tit-for-tat killing, a group would go find somebody else. At that point, my sister was a youth leader in a denomination that would identify her as being in one of those tribes. Totally out of random, no reason, just that she was the last one to lock up her church building very late one evening, and was therefore alone and vulnerable, a terrorist from the other tribe just stepped up, put a gun at her neck, and shot her, and she was paralyzed from the neck down and in a coma, and she stayed on life support for three weeks, and then the life support got turned off and she died.

And it was a catalyst in what had been a horrendous period. It was just such a gripping, emotional story that 3,000 people turned up at her funeral. Nobody knew her. My sister, she was 20 years of age. But there was this massive outcry and to cut a very long story short, my mother, who is a classic Belfast — if any of our listeners are from Northern Ireland, they’ll know this image immediately — like a little blue-collar woman who had just held on, strange job after strange job, whatever she could do to put money on the table. My then-daughter would be the first to would ever go to college in our family. We had no background in anything. She, over a space of a year, got to talk to the guy who was the head of the terrorist group, and I could name him and many people would know his name. He’s still alive, and he’s a member of the … well, I’ll not give any identifying information. She went to see him. She was bundled up in the back of a taxi cab, blindfolded, driven around for three hours, and came to see this man, talked to him for a few hours, had brought my sister’s bible, just wanted to know why would he give instructions for something like that to happen.

There was not really much of a meeting of mind, but he was very pleasant, and to really shorthand the story as she was leaving, he said, “You know what, you’re the only person, you are the only…” and then he named the tribe that we’re from — Protestant or Catholic, I don’t want to put this on anybody — “You’re the only one from that group I’ve ever talked to. Would you come and talk to me again.” And they built a friendship. She introduced him through a group that she linked up with to the leader of the group on the other side. Now we have the two people who are leading the two tribes at civil war, and if I mentioned both their names, one of them is now deceased — everybody who’s involved in that would know who they are. They met in a brokered conversation in our little seaside town in Northern Ireland. My mother stepped out of the picture, and it was two years later, but two years later, the Easter Agreement was signed, the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. I’m not saying my mother had anything to do other than being a way in which the two sides got involved in a very complicated discussion. I just pause at that, as here’s this woman, late fifties, nothing big in her life had ever happened, and she went big. She went big at a time when she had the opportunity to do it. So I just encourage people, start small, start big.

David Gardner: I am in awe of that story. I love both stories and I’m so glad that you told those lessons. Thank you for sharing that, but how can it not give somebody goosebumps to hear what you just shared, and to be reminded that… I’m not sure your mother was ever on a magazine cover for this, and nobody was saying she was the CEO of anything. It’s a perfect example of leadership for all of us. All of us are capable. Not everybody steps up though — in many cases, because we thought leadership was for someone else. It’s not me. How could I do that? When put in situations, sometimes catastrophes or crises, as you say elsewhere in Do Lead — which is a beautiful book, I hope everyone will read it coming out of the conversation this week — character usually does show up. Real shows of character really do show up in crises or failures. It’s easy — all of us on the winning side, we can smile and shake hands with the other team, and attaboy attagirl everybody around us, and maybe tip the usher on the way out when we win. But when we lose, we see character, and when we lose a family member … and you tell that story. I’m grateful that you told that.

Thank you, Les. It’s a beautiful book, Do Lead, and all of us should probably read Do Scale, too, and I know some already have and probably will as a result of this conversation. Let me close, Les, by simply asking you for a book recommendation or two. You’re somebody who’s written a number of very good books on the topics of business, scaling, and leadership. You already talked about your admiration for Drucker, even though we shot him down with a 2.1 at the start of the conversation.

It reminds me, by the way, of how I always treated Jack Bogle, because I’ve felt just the same way about Jack Bogle. Such deep respect for the man and what he did on this earth, and the only bone I ever had to pick — and we talked it about on this podcast and other places, and it was always good-natured — is he thought there was no benefit to picking individual stocks. You should always just index every time. Of course, at the heart of everything that I’ve done and stand for in our company is the idea that choosing does matter and picking stocks that are the better companies, not the worse ones, that are doing things that fit with you and your vision of the future — that’s worth doing. So that was always a bone to pick we had. But outside of that, total admiration for the man who understood the importance of character. Maybe I’ve stalled long enough for you, Les, for you to come up with a little bookshelf that we can assemble as a consequence of listening to you and thinking about what would I want to read next.

Les McKeown: David, I’ve got to say I get asked a version of that so often I’m always so disappointed for the listeners [laughs] because of my inability — and really, what I should do is just go find a couple of titles…. Here’s the thing: I don’t read in the business world, for a couple of reasons. One is because I’m a total plagiarist. I don’t mean to be. But I read something on Monday, and then I think I thought it up three days later. So I try to stay away from that. Secondly, I’m not joking when I said what I said about Drucker. I read all of his stuff and a whole bunch of the classics when I was a lot younger. What I discovered maybe 15, 20 years ago was business books were now being written to prove out a theory. I think it started with In Search of Excellence, which I’m not knocking it as a book, but we all know what happened to the examples that Tom Peters used in that. I just feel that business writers, they’ve got a dog in the hunt.

I am going to recommend some books. I tend to read in history, I read biographies of non-business people. I read a lot around what might be called general physiology, just what makes us tick as people and as human beings, because I see so many principles over and over and over again that come out of a source that’s not trying to sell me a principle to use in business. Am I making sense?

David Gardner: Yeah.

Les McKeown: I’ll share, for what it’s worth — you asked, so I’m going to tell you — the two books that I have in my bookshelf at the moment. I’ve usually got like 20 that are folded at an open spot, ready for me to get to. But the two I’m working through at the moment are an illustrated book about the Battle of Crecy, which was part of the Hundred Years War, 15-something-or-other. The main thing that comes out of that was the inability of the [French] — it was England versus France, they just fought each other like a gazillion times in the 1400s, 1500s, 1600s — the inability of France to realize that the British mastery of the long bow meant that just the way they were going to set this battle up meant they were dead in the water. It’s just as a story, in and of itself, but it’s a story of recognizing innovation, recognizing where your competitors going to get you. It’s really, really good. I’m on about my ninth biography of Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan and the Golden Horde — which actually, his group was not called the Golden Horde, the Golden Horde was his grandson’s version of the marauding Mongols — did a fascinating thing. They built what was then and for a very long time was the largest empire ever built without once building a city. They never built a city. They wouldn’t live in cities. They lived in yurts. They called themselves the men of the cloth, not because they were in any way religious, but because they lived in cloth buildings. And their ability to innovate, how they would siege cities, but never, ever built one. I feel I learn so much more from those sources than I do from reading a business book where I just so often feel like I’m being told what I’m meant to believe.

David Gardner: I really appreciate that. In fact, that’s my own approach. I’ve read very few investing books… I think I may have written more investing books than I’ve read, because I would much rather read outside of the discipline, then pull in ideas and mashups, bounce one idea off of another, and all of a sudden it sparks up a new way to think about investing. I completely can relate and I’m sure a lot of those listening to us at this point have the same feeling in life. Yeah, so the more widely we read and the more broadly, I’m much more grateful for that recommendation, Les, than your favorite book on business scaling, which by the way, you’ve written yourself. So it wouldn’t be news [laughs].

Les McKeown: That’s the one I would recommend.

David Gardner: Well, Les McKeown, thank you so much for joining us this week. It was a really wide-ranging, fun conversation on the topic, leadership, that gets as much ink spilled over it as any other topic I can imagine in the business world, and yet, it’s a word that has tended to wander from its initial roots and means too many things to too many people today. So Les, I love the big picture approach, and the democratizing approach that you’ve given. You’ve given us all leadership that we can aspire to, and in fact, enact right upon conclusion of this podcast because that’s the whole spirit of it. Thank you, Les McKeown.

Les McKeown: Thank you, David. It’s been a delight to be here, and thanks everybody.

David Gardner has positions in Starbucks and Tesla. The Motley Fool has positions in and recommends Starbucks and Tesla. The Motley Fool recommends the following options: short October 2022 $85 calls on Starbucks. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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