The Rottweiler is a German-origin breed of dog. They are powerful animals and often considered ferocious and dangerous, even banned in some countries. At our residential community we have two Rottweilers. They look very similar and live just a few houses apart, yet they are very different. One is extremely ferocious, and every resident keeps a big distance when passing him on the community roads and he returns the gesture with a deep-throated growl. But the other fellow is friendly, cheerful, and will give you a slobbering lick if you get near enough to him. The behaviours are no mystery when you look at how the respective owners treat their Rottweilers.
The first is kept chained all day in a dark dingy outhouse room. His only contact with a human is when he is taken for a walk. We have often seen his attendant whack him and have immediately remonstrated with him. But Mr Friendly has loving owners who spoil and pamper him. He is in the house with them, hogs almost the entire back seat when he goes for a drive, often spends time playing catch and throw and is treated like a member of the house. Little wonder that he behaves as he is treated. As business leaders, we can learn much from this tale of the two Rottweilers.
Treat people the way you’d like them to treat others
Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher would say: “Your people come first, and if you treat them right, they'll treat the customers right.” Southwest Airlines drew customers, even though other airlines had fancier frills. Customers simply loved the way they were treated because Kelleher as leader, treated his people right. He went out of his way to show his team that he cared for them, that he put them first. Compared to most business leaders Kelleher had his priorities a little differently — employees first, customers second, shareholders third. And his people rewarded him by making Southwest Airlines the winning airline it became.
I remember in my first role as a Divisional manager with one of the Tata group companies, I had to sometimes evaluate factories that we could partner and work with. Often a factory that looked all fancy and polished in the way their offices and showrooms were set up ended up churning out poor or inconsistent quality. Instinctively, I cottoned on to a little short cut to know whether a factory would eventually cut it. Against the protests of the host factory owner or manager, I would not enter through the main, often flashy, entrance but ask to see the workers’ toilets at the back. If the worker toilets were badly maintained, I was able to quickly decide that the factory would end up costing us in poor quality and walk away. Even to my inexperienced manager-brain at that time it was quite clear that a factory that didn’t treat its people well — those people would not treat the product or its production well. It rarely failed me.
Business leaders crow about treating the customer right but treat their own employees in a mercenary way. They cut corners, make compromises, and through their decisions and actions convey to employees that profits matter more than they do. But the wise business leader leads with authentic care and compassion without compromising on business rigour. Employees then learn to role-model that same behaviour.
Treat people they way you’d like to see them be, not as they are
In Ted Lasso, the TV series about the American football coach adjusting to life coaching an English soccer team — Nate is the errand boy, who collects the players dirty clothes and towels. The players look down on him, often bully him. But not coach Lasso. He gives him respect, he listens to him, he even asks for his advice on a play and actually uses it in a game. Nate rises to this expectation. He soon loses his job but is given a new one — Assistant Coach. Lasso treated him not as he was, but how he hoped he would be. As Dale Carnegie pointed out decades ago: “Give the dog a good name.” What he meant was that if you gave the dog a name that was good, noble, heroic — then that’s what the dog lived up to.
As business leaders, we are often so obsessed with performance that we are blinded to potential. We fail to see the promise in a team member, a colleague. So, we put them in a box where we have typecast them, often labelled by their past. In doing so, we fail them, ourselves and the organisation. We don’t harness what they could be. When we treat people as we aspire for them to be, they change. They rise in their own eyes and push themselves to actualise the picture we have given them. Ralph Waldo Emerson summarised the wisdom behind this so eloquently: “Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.” You sow what you reap.
‘Challenge makes them raise their game’
Vince Lombardi was one of the all-time greatest football coaches. But his initial leadership style was bossy, arrogant, and often demeaning to his players. Thankfully, Lombardi was self-aware to realise that he had to change. As David Maraniss writes in When Pride Still Mattered , he morphed in a very deliberate way from the authoritarian boss to the smarter older brother. He realised that he could not reap great performances by humiliating his players. Instead, he now told them “how much he wanted them to succeed.” And they responded with win after win. He went from being referred to as “Little General” and “Little Mussolini” to Vinnie. Business leaders must move from an approach of fault-finding and criticism, from an approach-obsessed with what went wrong to giving team members a glimpse of what could go right. I remember Bill Green, the former Chairman at Accenture in a meeting telling us: “Criticism makes people raise their defences, challenge makes them raise their game.”
Malcolm Gladwell writing in The New Yorker brought us the inspiring insurgent story of Vivek Ranadive who in spite of having never touched a basketball until his 40s, coached his twelve-year-old daughter’s basketball team to unlikely success. As Gladwell writes: “When Vivek Ranadivé decided to coach his daughter Anjali’s basketball team, he settled on two principles. The first was that he would never raise his voice. This was National Junior Basketball — the Little League of basketball. The team was made up mostly of twelve-year-olds, and twelve-year-olds, he knew from experience, did not respond well to shouting. He would conduct business on the basketball court, he decided, the same way he conducted business at his software firm.” Both team and software company were successful, as Ranadive reaped what he had sowed — respect and faith.
The tale of the two Rottweilers can teach us that perhaps the best gift we can give our teams is the belief in who they could be, the trust in what they could accomplish. Leaders who practise that will find their teams often exceed both.