Leaders Instill Greatness in Their People

Reading time ( words)

My daughter works at Bowdoin College, a small but prestigious college in Maine. It has been around since 1794 and counts among its alumni two presidents of the United States, writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Senators George Mitchell and William Cohen, Civil War hero General Joshua Chamberlain, and my personal favorite—Joan Benoit, the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in the first woman’s marathon. Bowdoin has also graduated other local dignitaries as well.

It is a very difficult college to get into. Bowdoin accepts only 14.9% of its applicants, which means that when a kid finally gets into Bowdoin and shows up for his first week, he is usually pretty intimidated. I bet that more than one kid has feared that it was all a mistake and he really doesn’t belong there.

This is where the Bowdoin Book comes in. All new Bowdoin students spend a few minutes with the president of the college, and the meeting goes something like this:

The president welcomes the kids into his office in groups of five or six at a time, and tells them that they truly do belong there. He explains that the college administrators have spent hours going through thousands of applications and holding endless meetings before they finally selected them.  They choose these kids because they belong at Bowdoin. These students were hand-picked to be there because the college knew they could do the work.

Then the president brings out the big Bowdoin Book. Yes, there is really a Bowdoin Book, the college’s matriculation book. He tells them that every single person who has ever attended Bowdoin starting in 1794 has signed this book. The he flips through the pages and shows them the actual signature of the dignitaries that I mentioned earlier. Then he tells them that it is their turn to join these people. It is time for them to sign the Bowdoin Book and officially become part of the family.

Think about that for a minute. What do you think that feels like? Think about how much tradition and heritage is instantly embedded into each of these kids. Talk about an effective way to bring them into the fold. I bet it is something they never forget.

Now let’s apply this to our business. As leaders, it is our responsibility to foster this kind of pride and tradition into those who work for us. It is up to us to make sure that our people are the best that they can be. We have to make sure that we instill greatness into them. If they are the best they can be, then our company is in good hands.

I once worked for a company that was owned by a brilliant guy, an engineer and inventor. There was only one problem: He hated salespeople, or “peddlers,” as he called them. Every year we would hold an elaborate sales meeting. All of the salespeople and reps would spend a week at the home office getting ready the new year. I would spend a great deal of time getting ready for this meeting, as would the salespeople. We would work hard and play hard and do a lot of team building. The people would get really jazzed up completely charged to get out there and have a terrific year.

There was only one problem. The owner. The owner never participated in any part of the sales meetings, not at all. But he would always insist on coming to the meeting on the very last hour of the last day to get in the last word.

He would then come in and proceed to berate the salespeople into oblivion, telling them that they were lazy, that they all were overpaid and that this year if they did not produce heads were going to roll! And then he would leave suddenly, slamming the door behind him in disgust.

Every year he did this, completely ruining all of the good work we’d done over the previous four days. Why did he do it? I am not sure. After all, he was the one footing the very expensive bill for that meeting. And now he made sure through his words and actions that the sales team was completely demoralized. They left those meetings with their chins dragging on the floor. All that time and money and energy was wasted because of that last talk from the owner.

These are two very different stories with very dramatic differences aren’t they? Which story did you like best? Which organization do you think gets the most out of their people?

It’s pretty easy to see isn’t it? The people at Bowdoin are so full of pride for their organization that they would follow their president through the gates of hell. On the other hand, I can tell you from firsthand experience that the sales staff in the second story would not follow that owner across the street to a free buffet.

It’s very simple. As a leader, it is your job to do everything you can to encourage your people to greatness. And a company filled with great people is a great company. It’s only common sense.


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