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  • John Chambers, PhD

Slaying Demons or Selling Value?

“I am game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow; but I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? it will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market."

How telling was Melville when he penned the great Moby Dick, whose dialog through the glorious adventure presented the conflicting objectives of two leaders – the Captain and the First Mate. Starbuck saw the trek as his fiduciary duty, his promise to investors, part of the supply chain that served the Nantucket market. Ahab saw personal vengeance, “his” vengeance, “his” goal directed at a singular being – one whale, one foe. To be sure he was courage and fortitude plowing the ocean in a thundering voice, rousing the seamen to his cause under the biting wind and flapping sails. And they followed him. Is it because the tale was set a century and half ago, when social hierarchies were more entrenched, or perhaps because nautical environments emphasized – rather, necessitated -- commander vs. subordinate?

As executives, our choices of words speak to our thoughts, prejudices, passions, goodwill, worries, responsibility... And for the executive head, it isn’t all about you. In fact, none of it should be.

This is hardly to say that any CEO is afflicted with the madness of the Pequod’s captain. In fact, recent experience and many others have rewarded me with chief executive officers who speak only of the team and only of the customers who benefit from all of us.

Sometimes leaders forget this.

In classical balanced scorecards, strategies and objectives are woven together into the whole rather than a sum of parts. Measures are interconnected across financial stewardship, operating discipline, delivery and most importantly – the leading factor – customer value. The tide of outflowing services, thanks to the skill of an interlocking team, provide goodness to the buyer. Hopefully that service or product value is embraced by every individual in the company, recognizing that the final contribution is the betterment of those buyers who depend on the firm.

In more than one CEO’s motivational speech, I watched in dismay as the competitive goal was personified into a grudge match between the speaker and the head of a competing firm: “He beat me to the market in Europe, but this year I’ll beat him at his own game!” Some smiles and subtle fist clenching in the audience would imply it resonated, but the hurrahs were few and far between. “He” beat “me”? It’s puzzling how the competition’s CEO, “he,” was able to possess singular credit for a firm’s successful fiscal quarter. Further, it’s puzzling to me to understand how our CEO, “me” in his cry, was singularly accountable for being beaten.

When the leaders see themselves as mano-a-mano pugilists, duking it out before a ringside audience of other employees (those leaders forgetting they are also employees) then the team thank-you’s are lip service; by implication, they always were in that kind of environment. I saw this behavior even as a kid, playing junior high school football, when the coach of us young teenagers shouted at us pre-game, “I want to see him lose!” The “him” was our opponent’s coach. I couldn’t care less about the other coach; I wanted to win the game.

Business libraries, research, and essays are overflowing with the study of the senior leadership and/or top executive in the hierarchy. So much so that social vernacular reinforces the unfortunate interpretation – CEO as some kind of private king, the owner of success or failure, of winning or losing, however one wants to think of those states of being. Some CEOs end up believing it. While they applaud their teams in corporate off-sites, they imply that the worth of the company is represented by a knockout punch delivered to a competing owner. I don’t think a software developer in the 1990s, or marketing specialist, or operations manager really would have cared if Scott McNealy at Sun won some ethereal wrestling match against Bill Gates. At least they shouldn’t have. Their focus should be on marketplace options that support their own efforts along with the corporate objectives of creating the best and most valued service or product in their sector.

Mr. Starbuck was as observant and he was prescient, spearing at the ill-advised zealousness of a leader who corrupted the firm’s goal.

This isn’t some tired whine over an executive’s moment of distraction or misfiring attempts at humor. When passions spill from our mouths, they display a point of view and a deep seated perspective. Some executives are clumsily transparent in their self-absorbed career, seeing the company as “mine,’ the deployment as “mine,’ the goal as “mine.” When a CEO is rousing the team or celebrating the opportunities ahead, then what is the purpose of his comically reminding everyone that his age is actually lower than some competitor CEO’s? Yes, this too happened.

The firm of Melville’s future, our present, needs professionals and staffs who have skin in the game. We garner little loyalty unless there is a credible and recognizable connection between and among executives and staff, along with a goal of successfully creating value. The HR reminders of teamwork, shared accountability, and shared success mean little if the leader’s obsession is a person of stature rather than a competing firm of stature.

Starbuck understood his purpose was the customer’s purpose. His goal was the company’s goal. And he was damned to a fate of supporting someone who saw only a personal purpose, forgetting those who depended on the success of the journey – the customer, the investor, the wage earner, the team. Little loyalty is gained in the present day when employees get an inkling that their present leadership views them as a simple cog in the wheel. It's a matter of time before the firm's product suffers and the ship's mates begrudgingly seek other captains.

The mobile workforce of today is enriched by diverse personalities and skills who come together for the betterment of our customers, not to deliver a beat-down to some other wealthy senior executive.

There were no customers seeking a white whale.

There were no customers whatsoever who cared about Ahab’s obsession.

The customers awaited the Pequod’s bounty of oil, and its contribution to feeding the market’s mosaic.

Instead the value was lost, the market ignored, the customers discarded, and investors left to demand insurance claims.

While only Ishmael was able to hold to a floating coffin awaiting rescue, Starbuck and Ahab perished into the depths -- the entire team of whalers being swept to the same fate.

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