If Not You, Then Who?

There are two kinds of regrets. The first are opportunities that were present that we did not act on. The second are forays into areas that did not work as well as we had expected. The research shows that the former are the ones that weigh more heavily on us psychologically. Every leader is faced with a myriad of decisions every day and has to weigh carefully the personal, political, career, and financial aspects against his or her intentions, values, and motivation. However, at some point the followers want to know what the leader stands for. Why would they trust their career and welfare to her or him? Is this the organization that they thought they signed up for? Is this the leader that will role model personal commitment to the vision, values, and service that the organization advertises as the core to its culture?

There are personal leadership legacies that are forged during decisive moments (please see my Decisive Moments blog posted on October 9, 2018).  For example:

  • What were you thinking and what did you do when the names of some of the people you work with came up during performance review and quick judgments were made without the full information and context? (Group think). Or worse, someone threw a stink bomb into the conversation by putting their assessment of the person as indisputable fact with no curiosity or two way dialogue.
  • Some on the leadership team routinely spin their own personal agenda and preferences such as pet projects, people, and plans through the lens of organizational strategy or values. Credibility is being affected and you are seen as part of this problem by being on the same team with them.
  • The sales group has heard the message about the pressure to grow and has started some shady practices at the buyer and store levels including shelf displays, promotions etc. You are part of the leadership team, but you are not managing sales.
  • Your organization, recognizing that its core competencies may soon start to be disintermediated through technology, innovation, and pace in the market place, has invested in acquiring products and services in adjacent spaces. However, any time the leaders of the newly acquired organizations share their views of change and creativity, one of the legacy leaders throws cold water onto the conversation by reminding them that they are now part of the legacy organization and every idea needs to be approved by the status quo leaders who are change averse. You are reminded that it is better for your career if you don’t rock the boat and “let the leaders sort all of this out in due time…” In the meantime, every fiber of your body is telling you that your organization is going to be left behind and the interest of a few is overwhelming decisions that should be made now in order to stay competitive.
  • Draft your own example…

What we know about the 21st century is that it will be unforgiving of organizations and leaders who are too slow to adapt and will disseminate the laggards. The rate of change and speed to delivery is such that, at the time of this writing, I do not believe any of the futurists can confidently predict its dynamics or potential accurately.

What we do know, based on current sign posts, is that organizations have to be agile, able to read the adjacencies, and operate quickly and collectively to benefit from the early mover advantage. This assumes that leaders make decisions and serve the interest of the broader organization.  Self-serving ego, internal politics, territoriality, protocols, 19th and 20th century hangovers relating to ego, hierarchy and personality cults will only ensure that they suffer the fate of film technology and typewriters. Simply said, leader-led group think without dissent and capturing the minority view will over time lead to handing the advantage to the competitors. Witness Enron…

Experience shows that that many industries, such as the high tech sector where the distance between the product and customer’s voice is short and direct, are already forming 21st century cultures. I was invited to facilitate a Silicon Valley discussion regarding product development. It was refreshing to see that when the sandal wearing and pony tailed software engineer stood to speak in a reserved voice to recall the launch of a new tablet PC you could hear a pin drop. The room was engulfed with curiosity and respect without anger, ego, and hierarchy. Eventually the organization, after having a respectful dialogue, did follow the advice of the software engineer to its eventual benefit. One may contrast this with those industries protected by long-term or heavily regulated patents or those that are still kept alive through subsidies or protection.

This presents some interesting questions to reflect on.

  1. Where are your lines and boundaries? At what point and around which issues do you draw the line?
  2. Who and what are you serving? What are your values and intentions? How does it align with your choices and actions?
  3. Where and on what are you spending most of your time? Is it in alignment with your role as a leader?
  4. Who will be affected by the decisions you are witnessing or possibly taking part in?
  5. At your farewell retirement event, what do you want your legacy to be? What would do you want the speakers to say about you and how would you like your colleagues to feel about you? What will they say and how would it feel if you stay on your current trajectory?
  6. And last but not least, if not you, then who?

Here is an example of mindful and conscious leadership. Steve Denning describes Whole Foods and summarizes the book Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey (co-CEO of Whole Foods) and Raj Sisodia as follows1

“Imagine a business that is born out of a dream about how the world could be and should be…”

“Picture a business built on love and care rather than stress and fear, whose team members are passionate and committed to their work…”

“Think of a business that cares profoundly about the well-being of its customers, seeing them not as consumers but as flesh-and-blood human beings whom it is privileged to serve…”

“Envision a business that embraces outsiders as insiders, inviting its suppliers into the family circle and treating them with the same love and care it showers on its customers and team members”

“Imagine a business that is a committed and caring citizen of every community it inhabits, elevating its civic life and contributing in multiple ways to its betterment…”

“Imagine a business that exercises great care in whom it hires, where hardly anyone ever leaves once he or she joins…”

“See in your mind’s eye a business that chooses and promotes leaders because of their wisdom and capacity for love and care…”

“Imagine a business that exists in a virtuous cycle of multifaceted value creation… while also delivering superior financial results year after year, decade after decade…”

Let’s note that John has and will continue to be under the same pressures as other leaders. He has to run an organization that shows year over year growth and profitability, and now as part of Amazon, the pressure is even more intense.

Here is one choice that he made in alignment with his values and intent. In late 2014 Whole Foods rolled out to their vendors a new rating system called Responsibly Grown, which measures factors like energy conservation, waste reduction, and farm worker welfare. Please see below:

There followed large scale global protest from farmers and vendors fearing that the new rating system would undermine their brand margins. The New York Times aired a story on the front page of the business section. NPR broadcast a lengthy segment on Morning Edition.

In the end, Whole Foods made some tweaks to the new program but did not back down. Mackey, was undaunted. He was quoted saying that “You need dissonance, and you need someone who is challenging things. Otherwise you get stuck.”2

By the way, Whole Foods is the most profitable food retailer and Amazon paid $13.7 billion to purchase it.

Questions for Online Conversation

  • When was the last time you were in a decisive moment? What choices did you make?
  • Do you feel this is just “soft stuff” and the domain of HR and leadership development people? If not, what are some of the ways that you are exhibiting Conscious Leadership?
  • What would you advise your son or daughter to do when they find themselves in those decisive moments?

1. Denning, S. (2013, January). The New Management Paradigm: John Mackey’s Whole Foods. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2013/01/05/the-new-management-paradigm-john-mackeys-whole-foods/#2bb97da57a19. 2. Kowitt, B. (2015, August). John Mackey: The Conscious Capitalist. Fortune. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2015/08/20/whole-foods-john-mackey/.


About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

One Response to If Not You, Then Who?

  1. Jason Arends says:

    Another well done article by Kaveh!

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