Why Didn’t James Comey Confront Trump?

Lordy, I hope there are tapes.

James Comey

 

During former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee (June 8, 2017), Senator Marco Rubio asked Comey why he didn’t air his concerns about Trump immediately while he was still FBI director.

“I think the circumstances were such that I was a bit stunned and didn’t have the presence of mind, and I don’t want to make it sound like I’m Captain Courageous; I don’t know whether even if I had the presence of mind I would’ve said to the president, ‘Sir, that’s wrong.’ I don’t know whether I would have. But in the moment, it didn’t come to my mind; what came to my mind was, ‘Be careful what you say.”

James Comey’s history reveals a courageous man. Was he showing false humility to avoid telling a deeper truth that he may not have been totally aware of?

I can imagine a different response from Comey to Rubio’s question:

I was stunned and caught off guard by the things President Trump said and the underlying messages he sent to me. I also felt repulsed by the nature of the man. My instincts told me at our dinner meeting (Jan. 27, 2017), ‘This is a dangerous moment’ and I better remember what he says and document it for he will lie about what he said if the meeting became important in the future. I focused on Trump, his words and his unspoken messages to me. I had to get through this meeting with my integrity intact and without getting fired. Not to save my job: I wanted to protect the Russia investigation from him and survive long enough to gather whatever evidence the President wanted to give me. I decided that I would document all future engagements with Trump. 

I knew some things intuitively: Confronting Trump would be futile and unproductive. He attacks anyone who confronts him. He would have refused enlightenment and efforts to educate him. I was not the President’s lawyer or advisor and it was not my job to school the President on how to do his job or to stop him from going down an inappropriate path that may become criminal. Besides, he wasn’t naïve, ignorant or inexperienced; he knew exactly what he was doing.

I talked to the Attorney General about not leaving me alone with the President. He said nothing. I did not trust him enough to say more to him. Resignation would have harmed the investigation and the FBI and there might not be a Special Counsel today had I quit. I knew without thinking about it that I would stay and do what I could to advance the Russia investigation and protect the integrity and independence of the FBI.

It was my job to document the facts and my experiences with the President. I would do so until I could no longer contain the situation and was put in a position by the President where I had no choice but to resign or sacrifice my integrity. I wondered how far he would go. I reviewed each conversation with Trump with my FBI staff and we discussed my strategy. I needed the documentation and witnesses to protect myself and the FBI. The evidence I documented led, I believe, to the appointment of the Special Counsel.

People considered Comey a smart political operative within the government bureaucracy. I suspect he was more calculating than he wanted to acknowledge–even, perhaps, to himself. I think his “calculating”–fully conscious and rational or on emotional and intuitive auto-pilot–was a good thing for it served a noble purpose and he carried his plan out ethically. For political reasons, maybe it was easier for Comey–a man who doesn’t like to talk about himself–to be self-deprecating about his personal courage than to share his deepest essence and personal reactions with the Senators. Comey may not be Captain Courageous but he has more nerve than most of us and he’s no naive boy scout.

I had several situations in the corporate world—as a leader and as a consultant—where I was threatened with the loss of my job or income if I did or didn’t do certain things that went against my values. I sat across from angry executives who insulted, demeaned and threatened me and who had no respect for niceties or talents for confrontation. I also sat across from executives who delivered dark metamessages with a soft tone and “safe’ words. Trump embraces both tactics to get what he wants. Like Comey, I felt stunned. Also confused and crazy. Imagining myself interrupting people of questionable intent who had power over me to tell them how badly they were handling themselves makes me laugh. I would have been fired and ridiculed for my naiveté. It is even more ludicrous to expect Comey to do so with Trump. Confront a mean narcissist? Get real. Comey had a greater purpose.

In dealing with such people, I often operated at a gut and intuitive level in real-time without the opportunity to think everything through as rationally as I might have liked. These were new, confusing and dangerous situations with no manual to tell me how to handle myself. My values guided me. It took me years to sort out some crazy situations and to make sense out of nonsense. I suspect James Comey will be reflecting on his “nonsense” experiences with Trump and his own feeling  and reactions for a long time.

The moment always came with those executives when I had to choose to sell my soul, quit or get fired. My commitment to truth and my values was deep and I never gave in to threats made by powerful people. Comey managed his situation as long as he could without selling his soul. Trump fired him before Comey felt he had to resign (May 8, 2017).

It’s hard to stand up for our values in a world filled with madness. James Comey faced darker craziness with far greater things at stake than I ever had to deal with. He did so in the public eye certain to be criticized and attacked. He is a noble and honorable man.

I look up to the James Comey’s of the world who—often alone–stand up to malevolent people with full knowledge that they will suffer personally for their commitment to something larger than themselves: in Comey’s case a powerful allegiance to our Constitution and to the integrity and independence of the FBI and to his own values.

I was once asked disdainfully, “Who do you think you are, the keeper of the values?”

Yes, I am the keeper of the values and so are you and you and you.

Is It Time to Colonize Mars?

Homo sapiens is a serial killer of the ecosystem.

Yuval Harari author of Sapiens & Homo Deus

 

In Expedition New Earth—a documentary that debuts this summer as part of the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World science season—Stephen Hawkins claims that Mother Earth would appreciate it if we would find a new planet to call home.

And do so in the next 100 years.

Because of “climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics and population growth, our planet is increasingly precarious” wrote the BBC. Remaining on Earth longer than another 100 years places humanity at great risk of encountering another mass extinction, Hawking claims.

We must…continue to go into space for the future of humanity. Stephen Hawking

Another thought-leader said: “There are really two fundamental paths,” [Elon] Musk told an overflow crowd at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. “One path is we stay on Earth forever, and there will be some eventual extinction event. … The alternative is to become a space-faring civilization and a multi-planet species.” (CBS News; 9/27/16) (Elon Musk is the founder of Space X)

Words from an essay I wrote in 2008 remain true today:

Republicans have made clean-energy legislation a dirty word.

New York Time columnist Thomas Friedman wrote, “We don’t have a ‘gasoline price problem.’ We have an addiction problem. We are addicted to dirty fossil fuels, and this addiction is driving a whole set of toxic trends that are harming our nation and world in many different ways. It is intensifying global warming, creating runaway global demand for oil and gas, weakening our currency by shifting huge amounts of dollars abroad to pay for oil imports…destroying plants and animals at record rates…..”

More fundamentally our problem is that six billion people (10 billion by 2050) are addicted to the consumption of our alive, interconnected, and interdependent planet.

That is not sustainable.

Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, Washington D.C., wrote, “A sustainable society is one that satisfies its needs without diminishing the prospects of future generations.”

Sustainability is the moral issue of this generation.

We will change how we think, and we will figure out how to live sustainably on this planet or we will not. Either way, something spectacular is going to happen. If we change, we will renew our economy, restore American global leadership, and help save the planet. We will experience a new renaissance of ideas and an indefinite future. Nothing less will save our way of life and perhaps the young of today and the unborn of tomorrow.

People I believe (Al Gore, scientist Jim Hanson, philosopher Daniel Quinn, & explorer Will Steger) say we have 10 to 40 years to change. If we don’t change, the momentum that carries us to possible extinction will be too great to overcome.

We must understand that the disruption of global climate is not a linear process—predictable and measurable in discrete ways. Climate change is a nonlinear process—unpredictable and uncontrollable. Small changes will have large impacts—on storms, temperature, precipitation, humidity, soil moisture, atmospheric circulation patterns, snow and ice cover, and ocean currents.

Unintended systemic consequences may not be seen until it is too late. Impacts may well happen sooner and with greater destruction than even the worst predictions. Nature is amoral and species neutral; she doesn’t care about us–she just acts naturally. And such changes in our weather will set off equally nonlinear, unpredictable, and uncontrollable reactions that will affect all life forms on this planet—including the human population. A massive chaotic transformation of life may take place on this planet.

Without change, within 200 years we may perish as a species or a few islands of prosperity and privilege may survive surrounded by a sea of misery and violence. We need to move quickly and boldly.

We, like addicts of all types, are experts at denial; we pretend the worst will not happen. We are irresponsible. We expect magic, God, or some heroic leader to rescue us. We need a spiritual awakening–a moment of metanoia: a shift of mind. Scientist Rupert Sheldrake said, “It is like waking up from a dream. It brings with it a spirit of repentance, seeing in a new way, a change of heart. This conversion is intensified by the sense that the end of an age is at hand.”

God will not rescue us. Nor will a hero or heroine save us. We are responsible for our collective fate. The great threats of climate change, population growth, species extinction, resource depletion, and global poverty have called for change for a long time. Are we ready to listen and to change how we live together on this planet….?

Change will be difficult but ease or difficulty is not the issue. The question is: are we ready to change or not? If we are ready, we will get behind a new vision for the renewal first of the United States and then of the world and we will do what is necessary.

We put a man on the moon eight years after John Kennedy challenged the nation. We can be free of foreign oil and produce 100% of our electricity from renewable energy within 10 years.

Whatever we do, something spectacular is going to happen soon. We will experience an evolutionary bounce or an evolutionary crash.

Back to 2017:

Republicans are now leading America. Donald Trump is our president.

I just want to think about the future without being sad.

Elon Musk in conversation with TED’s Chris Anderson (4/17)

Where Did the Learning Go?

The recent United Airlines fiasco illuminated the dark and anti-human side of the machine model of organizations. United has much to learn about leadership.

The following excerpt comes from Learning to Lead, a book manuscript I wrote in 1995. The book described an organizational transformation in the Customer Service department of the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis, MN from 1990-94. These thoughts remain relevant and I offer them freely to United Airlines.

During the fall of 1990, we established five strategic objectives.

They were:

  1. To improve the quality of work life for employees

Technology is important, but we felt that our employees had to come first. If they felt good about themselves, each other, their products, and their company, they would then provide enthusiastic service to the newspaper’s readers. Customer satisfaction and retention rates would then improve.

Quality of work life didn’t mean happiness. We knew we could not make everyone happy. Quality of work life meant creating a culture that treated everyone with respect, involved people in decisions that impacted them, empowered employees to serve the customer, gave employees the tools they needed to serve the readers, and provided opportunities to learn and perform.

  1. To improve customer satisfaction

It would be more important to retain our existing customers than to utilize promotional activities of marginal value to add new and usually temporary customers. We would retain customers by providing outstanding service, recovering rapidly when we made a mistake, and developing good relationships between front-line employees and our readers. These activities would grow our customer base.

  1. To become more creative

We realized that we would need the creativity of everyone as we moved to the future. We would change how we related to one another. We would encourage, draw out, and reward creative thinking and risk taking. To do this, we would have to change how we led. We would give up control, get out of the way, and allow people to be the best they could be. The job of leaders would be to facilitate this process

  1. To become faster moving and more flexible

We would do this through empowerment. Employees would have the freedom to serve their customers and make decisions about work processes they managed. The flow of information would be opened up and would support empowerment; secrecy would end. These changes in how we led people were required to encourage different ways of thinking about work and willingness to doing our jobs in different ways. The results would be speed and flexibility.

  1. To increase profitability

Financial success would be a natural result of realizing the first four objectives. Energized and committed employees would provide outstanding service to readers resulting in satisfied customers who would stay with the newspaper longer. Improved customer retention would mean reduced expense for generating new customers and less money spent on rework and recovery processes. A larger readership impacts advertising rates in a positive way. A creative, faster moving, and flexible workforce, empowered to provide outstanding service to customers, would require less supervision and fewer supervisors.

Creative employees would find new ways to bring revenue to the company. This business unit would eventually conceive of an alternate delivery system that would serve advertisers in targeted ways, initiate the marketing of products bearing the company logo to readers and non-readers, and investigate the use of our distribution system to deliver other products until told to stop by senior management (that wasn’t the business of a newspaper). There was a surge of wonderful ideas–most coming from front-line employees.

In addition to establishing these objectives, we wrote a vision for the business unit and a definition of Value Driven Leadership–those core values that would guide us as we moved toward our vision. Our key strategies were employee involvement, culture change, and market driven quality. We then created new norms for our emerging culture, developed specific planning objectives, and formed project teams. Values and vision drove our planning.

The redesign of our work and the involvement and empowerment of employees awakened those long dead to the organization and led to phenomenal business results and dramatic improvements in already outstanding customer service. Our work was recognized nationally, we spoke at conferences on employee engagement and people from around the country visited us. We had learned and shown that great human potential resides untapped in every group of people. Technology is really important; engaged people are even more vital. We do not have to choose humanity or technology. The right choice is humanity and technology.

I wondered why more leaders and organizations weren’t doing, in their own ways, what we were doing? While on the leading edge, our work was not the first effort to engage and involve employees nor was it unique in the specifics of what we did. Our story was a local one within a larger company, but the deep insights and underlying  dynamics we discovered exist at all levels of organization: The newspaper, the newspaper industry, across industries and across all communities of people and life itself. Why didn’t United Airlines, and thousands of other enterprises (and the newspaper industry) do similar things long ago with the knowledge available to them?

In 1994, I left the Star Tribune to join a movement to transform how we lead, follow and work in organizations and institutions. Under new leadership, the workplace we created was destroyed in short order.

I delved into the deeper dynamics that led to our success at the Star Tribune. I attended a Meg Wheatley dialogue where we discussed the new sciences that led to our success before we knew about the new scientific knowledge. Meg talked of the Fortune 500 clients she had worked with in recent years. When she returned to visit those organizations, she saw no evidence of change or learning. She asked, “Where did the learning go?”

I spent 13 years consulting in organizations and writing about organizational transformation and the kind of leadership required for such change. The movement I had joined had success stories but, unfortunately, I watched leadership in our organizations and institutions regress instead of evolve in life-affirming ways. Promising change efforts were  destroyed routinely; their leaders marginalized. I asked the equivalent of “Where did the learning go?” over and over again.

Today, more than 20 years after Meg Wheatley’s question, we have the United Airlines story within the larger societal context that contains powerful forces for regression and dehumanization. Many feel disheartened. I believe the crazy and dangerous resistance to facts, truth, learning and knowledge along with the marginalization and demonizing of the powerless are the final fearful and desperate efforts of a mechanistic world view that no longer solves our problems. I believe an ecological and living system world view will emerge.

As the rate of change accelerates in the future now upon us, I do not believe that leaders (or anyone else) who want a sustainable enterprise and a good and relevant life can continue to refuse to learn, ignore new knowledge and run from the hard work of human and leadership development. And I believe that new leaders and everyday people who love to learn and relish the hard work of personal growth will emerge from the rubble of places like United Airlines. I believe this because I trust that humanity will, in the end, choose renewal over decline. But then, I am an optimist.

On a global scale, a life affirming awakening flowers in the midst of a strain of madness. We must nurture this movement. If we pay attention, we can see great things happening locally and regionally every day. I hope our human awakening also becomes a great remembering of what humanity has learned through the ages. I hope our conscious evolution and greater enlightenment as a species happens fast so we have time to turn back anti-human forces and the great forgetting not only in our organizations but throughout our human community.

Whether a leader, a celebrity or an everyday person, we can ask, “Am I learning and reinventing myself over and over again so that I can feel alive, be fully human and create a good life for myself and my family?”

The Best Thoughts About the United Airlines Fiasco

This is the best thinking I’ve seen about the United Airlines fiasco. Related, see my blog: The Singularity.

The piece below paints a vivid picture of a culture that demands conformity and compliance from employees. The culture robs people of their freedom, their creativity and their ability to solve problems in the moment. The people try to be machines. But they are not  machines. The pressure to be something other than themselves sucks the life out of them. Had the employees felt valued, involved and informed and had they felt empowered to think creatively and to put the customer first, I believe this incident would not have happened. I thought we had learned these lessons in the 90’s. This is a failure of leadership at the highest levels of United.

From Fast Future Publishing:

“We think the biggest casualties of the recent highly publicized United Airlines service failure may not be the airline, its shareholders or an under-siege CEO. Instead, we believe those who could experience the biggest long-term challenges and consequences are the people running large-scale digital transformation programmes, their technology and implementation partners, and those heralding artificial intelligence (AI) as the future of business.  At the human and operational levels, the investigations, court cases, trials by TV and social media inquests will rumble on. Everyone wants to get to underlying truth of why Dr David Dao was violently yanked from his seat on United Express Flight 3411 from Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Louisville Kentucky on Sunday April 9th. The full commercial repercussions will take a while to work through. At one point, over US$250 million was wiped off the value of United’s stock, and it could fall further should customers choose to fly with other carriers in protest. The debate will also intensify about how long United’s CEO Oscar Munoz can stay in post before either falling on his sword or being bumped by his board.

Image Credit: Staresattheworld
Anyone who has the misfortune of flying United – even in the big bucks cabins – knows that sense of being on board a prison ship where you have to keep the wardens happy for fear of verbal reprimand or punishment. Sit anywhere near the galley and listen to the crew talking – in 15 minutes you’ll hear all the evidence you need of what’s going wrong with the airline.  United’s disillusioned staff are the embodiment of a business that prioritises systems over service, control over customers, subservience over solutions, and profits over people. They are the classic example of an organisation behaving like the machines it employs and seeing staff and customers simply as inputs to be transformed into outputs in the form of profits.

In the grand scheme of things, the incident raises massive warning signs for those embarking on flights of corporate transformation to an anticipated digital nirvana. Around the world, medium to large enterprises are spending hundreds of millions – and in some cases more than a billion – US dollars on digital transformation and AI automation programmes. These are primarily designed to create a hyper-efficient, low cost “algorithmic business” and replace humans wherever possible with smart and adaptive software. The appeal is that these shiny new systems will work 24/7/365, learn, adapt, respond consistently, never have an off day or a day off, and service peaks in business demand at no extra cost.

However, the warning bells should be ringing, the United case highlights what happens when we place too much store in technology. In this case, there was no real AI involved, just a set of rigid rules embedded in software and a removal of almost all freedom, capacity and incentive for staff to use their own initiative. Anyone – literally anyone – could have told United of the PR disaster that would ensue in today’s smartphone enabled and social media fuelled environment if they chose to send police onto the plane to forcibly remove Dr Dao. Had the United ground staff been able to use common sense and felt the courage to do so, they would have put their own staff on another flight or hired a limo to get them to Louisville, both of which would almost certainly have cost less than the US$800 plus accommodation that they were offering to each of the four passengers they wanted to remove. United could also have offered progressively higher levels of deplaning compensation until someone took the bait – suggestions range from US$1,000 – 1,300 as to what that figure might have been. United’s system doesn’t appear to have been equipped to make such choices or offer sensible suggestions, and the airline staff involved certainly didn’t look like they felt empowered to do so.

Image Credit: Denver Post
This represents a massive red flag for organisational digital change programs and those pursuing “employee” light AI-first automation strategies. The risk is that we create hollowed out businesses that are too rigid and incapable of responding to both predictable variations and truly unforeseen challenges. Embarking on an intense automation path actually requires that we give more autonomy and authority to the remaining humans in the organisation. They need to act fast and sensitively to problems, genuinely putting the customer first – rather than the system and the rules. The test is would you personally feel happy with the resolution on offer if you were the customer on the receiving end? Failure to do so could lead to a lot more United-style problems for many organisations. The United case will be a wake-up call for many firms and could lead to a slowing, suspension, or even cancellation of their digital change initiatives as they take stock to ensure they are not automating themselves off the playing field.

On the positive side, United and others will hopefully be forced to look at and change the nature and tone of their patently insensitive and seemingly inhuman machine generated corporate responses.  The world can see through double speak, as evidenced by the sheer scale of the vitriol directed at the airline, the number of United mocking advertisements from competitors, and the level of ridicule being heaped upon CEO Munoz and his team for the meaningless corporate mumbo jumbo they’ve been spouting on social media, in statements and in media interviews. These are all warnings of what happens when we become the machine.

So, how can we avoid “doing a United” and crash landing our digital transformation programmes? The first step is to be really clear on why we are doing the digital change or AI project. If cost is the primary driver, then we can pretty much guarantee some service failures of the “United kind”, if not always so public. Even though there may well be cost savings, the primary driver has to be delivery of a better, faster, more seamless, less frustrating, and more responsive service to customers. Get the service design right before we build the systems and the cost savings will follow. Secondly, we must look at our investment in people and their capacity to solve problems. United’s latest bout of self-harm highlights a real imperative to develop staff who can think on their feet, truly empathise with customers and come up with creative solutions that get it right when and where it counts – even if there’s an associated short-term cost of doing so for the organisation.

Image Credit: Denver Post
The more the rules and the process design are embedded in the system, the more important it will be for staff to be able to act fast and decisively at the point of customer interaction, especially when the technology fails or throws up patently dumb solutions in the prevailing context. This is going to take a lot of courage for staff to do this rather than choosing the “United Way” and simply following the rule book – employees will need to see, feel, smell, and touch the organisation’s commitment to protect them if they do the right thing for the customer. As organisations automate more deeply and reduce headcounts more savagely, the competition for the few remaining jobs will become more intense. This is likely to create an immense reluctance to take risks to bypass the rules and show initiative unless the firm can provide tangible and believable proof that these are the new winning behaviours that will help you keep your job and earn promotions. Admittedly, such opportunities might be in shorter supply in the highly-automated enterprise.

The biggest challenge lies in changing the leadership mindset. Many technology programmes are currently predicated on the notion that we’ll have far greater transparency and control over everything that happens – everywhere and at all times – the control freak’s utopia! The reality is that with AI, we cannot as yet see how these complex learning algorithms make their decisions and the internal rules they create and evolve, so we will be placing a level of blind faith in the systems. Secondly, the things that truly differentiate us and set us apart from our competitors will not be the clever choices made by our super smart algorithms: The true moments that make a difference will come from the stories of our people going above and beyond to serve the customer when the system wouldn’t allow it or simply failed to do the right thing. The irony is that, almost inevitably, the thinning of corporate headcounts will go too far too fast, and the few staff that remain will not have the time to provide detailed reports of how they did the right thing – perhaps their social media accounts will be the best place to find that out.

Almost inevitably, more attention gets paid to the big-ticket technology expenditure than the transformation of mindsets, enablement of empowerment and development of deep capabilities amongst staff. We often see and hear firms proudly proclaiming their investments in technology transformation as their commitment to a bright digital future for their business. In contrast, it’s a rarity to see organisations making equally proud statements about their investment in people. That pretty much tells us all we need to know about where the “United moments” are likely to occur.

There are many lessons that can be learnt from Dr Dao’s experience, not least to think twice before flying with United. However, perhaps the most transferable teaching point is to stand back and re-evaluate our digital transformation and AI-enablement initiatives to make sure that we are using the technology in genuine service of our people. We need to ensure that we are equipping staff to make empowered decisions to act in the best interests of the paying customer. In short, and perhaps paradoxically, the real goal of digital transformation and automation is to create a very human business.”

Not Management’s Fault; The People Did It.

This is the behavior of people that we found, that we did not want.

CEO John Stumpf, Wells Fargo

 

I’ve followed the news accounts of the phony sales tactics at Wells Fargo. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported:

U.S. and California regulators have fined San Francisco-based Wells Fargo $185 million, saying bank employees trying to meet sales targets opened up to 2 million fake deposit and credit card accounts without customers’ knowledge. Regulators said they issued and activated debit cards, and signed people up for online banking without permission. The abuses are said to have gone on for years, unchecked by senior management.

Millions of dollars were paid out in bogus bonus money and 5,300 employees were fired.

And the CEO blamed it all on the people—all 5,300 of them.

Sorry, Mr. Stumpf: I don’t buy it (UPDATE: Stumpf retired on Oct. 12, 2016).

I went to work long ago in the Circulation department at the Star Tribune newspaper. I was shocked at what I found. District Managers (the people who hired paper boys and girls) had circulation sales goals. There was lots of pressure to grow circulation numbers because the circulation of the newspaper determined advertising rates—the majority of the newspaper’s revenue.

Many district managers wrote phony orders, which created bogus circulation. They then collected bonus money and the “best” sales people “earned” trips for themselves and their significant others to luxurious resort locations around the world. The “stars” got promoted so they could supervise up and coming district managers. Everyone knew what was going on and supervisors and managers looked the other way. The culture had been this way for a long time and the cheaters did so willingly and happily—cheating beat working for a living (other sales tactics did similar things).

Not everyone cheated. Many did things the right way. They didn’t earn the trips or promotions. In my two years as a district manager, I always made my goals and I won two trips. I didn’t cheat; I worked hard.

The day came when I was given responsibility for the sales activities of the district managers. I wrote in my e-book, Value Driven Leadership (Amazon.com) how we changed the culture and behavior of the district manager group. I think it is a good example of how to be successful and value-driven at the same time:

This was my opportunity to do something about the rampant dishonesty in carrier sales. As a district manager, I had observed first-hand the perverse dishonesty in the sales program. District managers were allowed to write bogus orders, which many did. And they were well-rewarded for doing so: cash awards, and trips to exotic vacation spots. I couldn’t wait to clean this mess up.

I selected May Worker, a district manager, to be our carrier sales specialist and she left her district to work for me. May was a hard worker, down-to-earth, and could handle the male-dominated Metro Circulation managers.

May was the perfect fit. Over the next few years, she worked hard and was the primary catalyst in our building a sales program that we could feel proud of. May conducted training sessions for carriers and district managers. One summer, district managers trained more than 1,000 youth carriers in sales. I asked the district managers to put a sports coat on when they did their training session. I wanted them to look professional to the young people. One young manager refused. I told him that he could not be part of the sales campaign if he didn’t want to be a professional and he could spend sales nights making service calls for the other managers. Oh, and he would not be eligible for a bonus. He changed his mind and wore the sports coat.

May also selected district managers to work with her to plan sales campaign kickoff events. They were spectacular and funny. I remember one manager was a fleet truck. He had a green cardboard cutout of a truck over his body and walked around the stage saying, “truck, truck, truck.” The audience roared with laughter. From then on, we all looked forward to the kickoff meetings.

We wrote incentive plans with achievable goals for sales of subscriptions. Each manager had three levels of goals for morning and Sunday/weekend subscriptions. Achieving each goal level resulted in larger bonuses. Once the top-level was reached, the managers were paid “overage” for each additional order. Each campaign we exceeded the highest goals. The next campaign we raised the goals 10%. There was tremendous pressure to raise the goals higher as they had achieved higher results in the previous campaign, but I wanted them to feel successful and feel they could go all out and not be penalized for their success. We achieved more by requiring less.

After the first serious sales campaign in many years, about 20% of the district managers missed one or more of their goals. I didn’t like that. I scheduled a meeting with each manager. I invited the business agent for the Newspaper Guild. We met in a conference room near my office.

I began the meetings by thanking them for coming and did what I could to put them at ease. Then I calmly reviewed their goals with them and their accomplishments and how they had failed to meet their objectives. I talked about how important it was to the Star Tribune for district managers to grow circulation, and about how valuable a contribution it was to the company for them to participate and succeed. I told them that I asked only that they achieve the minimal level goal. If they did that, I would not bother them. If they chose to work harder and achieve the higher-level goals and make more money, they could. That must have sounded fair and reasonable to them. And the fact that I talked to them like adults mattered. In future sales campaigns, no district manager missed more than one goal and only a handful missed any at all. Everyone had to contribute and be a part of the team. The days of the district managers deciding what goals they would or would not achieve were over, as were the days of using threats and intimidation to motivate them.

After a week or two of one of the first campaigns, I met with the zone managers. They complained about how hard the goals were. They said they couldn’t make the objectives. I let them whine and feel sorry for themselves for a while and then said, “The given is that we will achieve our goals by the end of the campaign. The only question is, ‘Do we do it the hard way or the easy way?’ By that, I mean you and your district managers can make a plan and execute it every day for 12 weeks, or you can sit around and have a pity party and then have to work late every night for the last weeks of the campaign.”

From then on, each district and zone manager had to prepare a sales campaign plan before each campaign began. They always made and exceeded their goals.

At the end of 2½ years, we increased net sales by 250% per year. “No good” orders decreased by 95%. Customer incentives (free offers to customers) were cut by 50%. Incentives to carriers decreased by hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Several district managers were disciplined when they were caught cheating. We grew circulation, we had fun, and people felt proud of themselves.

Isn’t it amazing what responsibility, accountability, tough love and employee engagement can accomplish?

Leaders create cultures and people follow the unwritten-rules of the culture. At Wells-Fargo, greedy leaders set goals that were unreachable in honest ways, supervisors and managers threatened people with the loss of their jobs if they didn’t make the goals so many did what they had to do to survive. Don’t try to tell me that the employees—all 5,300 of them—did this all on their own. That said, employees are responsible for their choices too. They could have said no and found other jobs. But asking people to behave in value-driven ways in a context that pushes them to act contrary to their values puts employees in difficult situations and not all have the inner strength to resist.

The behavior of district managers in the Star Tribune Circulation department followed an industry pattern that had been in place for decades.

Congress might do some digging into what is going on at banks and financial institutions throughout the country.

Accountability: Rare in Organizations

The employee delivered newspapers full-time. He tried to organize the other adult employee carriers into a union. I managed the region the man worked in and spearheaded the effort to defeat the union. We won at great cost to the company.

After the vote, I continued to document the man’s chronically poor performance. I knew the company would not fire him absent extreme provocation. The lawyers feared he would claim retaliation—as if attacking our motives was evidence–and sue the company if they held him accountable with documented facts. I continued to document his performance issues because it was the right thing to do.

Can we do what is right and win cases too? I believe we can. Disciplined employees can challenge our facts and attack our motives but evidence and documentation speak for themselves. I was never sued or lost an arbitration because I did professional work correctly.

I was promoted and encouraged the employee’s direct supervisor to continue to document the man’s performance issues. I told him the company would not let him fire the man but if he got a massive amount of documentation, I would go with him and empty the box of memos and letters on the desk of the company general counsel.

About two years later, we did exactly that. We walked into the general counsel’s office with a cardboard box filled with written warnings. I turned the box over on his desk and dumped out a hundred or more written reprimands. We embarrassed him. The general counsel allowed us to fire the man, which was done with no repercussions.

I believe many of the best employees, at all levels, burn-out and leave organizations because they can’t use their values and power to effect right changes, including discipline. And the bad employees stay forever–a cancer on the organization.

Organizations are mostly mediocre; leaders and employees often middling or less. But some of us try to lead from our values and be excellent in what we do. We believe in holding people accountable for their performance via a fair process that gives employees a chance to change. Too often our efforts and good work get frustrated by higher-ups and attorneys terrified of being sued or complained about.

Whatever happened to standing up for ideals—win or lose? At least once in a while in especially egregious cases.

I left the newspaper and spent 13 years as a consultant. I tried to teach leaders how to lead transformation of their organizations. I focused on employee engagement, empowerment and involvement as key strategies. I also believed in a tough-love approach and taught managers how to hold people accountable. Many began–few followed through. They feared conflict and they feared they would not be supported by higher-management.

In a workshop I led on giving feedback, a manager asked what patterns I saw that cut across all organizations. That was easy: “the lack of accountability,” I said. I saw but one organization over those years that routinely held people accountable for their behavior and performance.

I retired from consulting after 13 years. I had tried every day with every client to influence leaders, managers and supervisors to use their power to bring about changes good for employees, executives, customers and the organization and changes that had huge positive impacts on the bottom-line. Accountability was one of many core issues I asked them to deal with.

Leaders professed to want “great organizations” but most lacked the right stuff needed to lead organizations from mediocrity to greatness—including accountability. They wanted quick-fixes—easy, quick, cheap and painless–and imagined magical changes in people. With rare exception, after realizing that real transformation required hard work, most stuck with mediocrity.

I still encourage people with power to do what they can to hold the mediocre, dishonest, immature and those who drain the life from others accountable. It’s the right thing to do. Just don’t expect any certain outcome for your efforts from timid decision-makers. What you do matters even if it doesn’t seem that way. Who knows, maybe someday you can dump your own box of documentation on the desk of an anxious lawyer or executives and embarrass them into action.

Ideals Require Courage

It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. Anne Frank

Republican presidential candidates should heed Anne Frank.

The terrorist attacks in Paris triggered a reality show that featured Republican presidential candidates in the midst of a group panic attack.

“This is a clash of civilizations,” incorrectly asserted the too-slick Rubio.

“Only let Christians in,” bawled the passive Bush and scary Cruz.

“Close America’s door to orphaned toddlers from Syria,” roared the bully Christie.

“Close the Mosques,” bellowed the hollow-man Trump who thinks requiring Muslims to wear an identification card is a good idea.

Giving neurosurgeons a bad name, Ben Carson compared Muslims to “mad dogs.”

“No refugees can come to our states,” proclaimed unlawful and “the sky is falling” Republican governors (and one democrat). They whined in mass when President Obama called them “un-American.”

And President Obama’s opinion: “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends…our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.”

I’m with the president.

For those of us fearful of a terrorist from Syria coming into the United States as a refugee, I quote from the Economist:

“Refugees apply for resettlement at American embassies or through the United Nations. If they pass that first hurdle, they are screened by outposts of the Department of State all over the world. They undergo investigations of their biography and identity; FBI biometric checks of their fingerprints and photographs; in-person interviews by Department of Homeland Security officers; medical screenings as well as investigations by the National Counter-terrorism Centre and by American and International intelligence agencies. The process may take as long as three years, sometimes longer. No other person entering America is subjected to such a level of scrutiny.”

I don’t like demagogues for leaders or politicians who fear-monger and demonize others to justify going against our values. Heed Voltaire’s observation: “those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

I don’t like leaders who try to make political points by refusing the helpless and powerless—most of them women and children.

I like my president and congressional leaders to be calm, deliberate, and thoughtful. I also like my leaders to be courageous, compassionate and clear thinking. Leaders stay true to long-held American values in the toughest of times and this is not one of America’s toughest times. Real leaders protect the powerless and helpless and women and children.

The attacks in Paris gave us a window into ourselves and those who aspire to lead America into the future.

Do we want a president with an apocalyptic world view who loses his nerve in a crisis and shoots before he aims? Do we want to lose our humanity?

Republican presidential candidates failed the real-time test of presidential leadership: Their eagerness to run from American values to get votes disqualifies them as serious presidential candidates.

Terrorist attacks scare us. That’s understandable. But let’s not get hysterical and let fear bring out the worst in us and allow the terrorists to win. We defeat the terrorists with courage and adherence to America’s history and core values. What will be become of us as a nation if at the first moment of fear we throw out our values and fall-apart?

A friend wrote: “If we set policy based in fear we fail. If we set policy based on our values, we redeem ourselves. Nothing less than our identity as a nation is a stake.”

P.S.
“The vote by the House of Representatives effectively to slam the door on Syrian refugees was the crassest kind of political grandstanding, scapegoating some of the world’s most vulnerable people to score political points.” Nicholas Kristof, NY Times, Nov. 22, 2015