My Mother’s Flower Beds
There is a memory that has come back to me time and again in my life, a memory that has informed much of what I believe about shaping organizations. On the surface this memory may not be very impressive, but over time it has inspired a great deal of what I now know about turnaround leadership.
In my early years, my father’s work meant that our family moved often. Every time we pulled up stakes, we spoke little of what we were leaving behind. The party line was, “Excitement ahead! No grieving!” Not surprisingly, this made for an unsettled childhood. We were constantly on the move. I attended multiple schools each year until I went to college. I was always the new kid, and I always felt a little out of place. No matter how hard things were wherever we lived, I consoled myself that we would probably be gone by Christmas anyway. I tended to put out vines rather than put down roots wherever I lived.
Despite these upheavals, I couldn’t help but admire my mother’s resilience. She endured the many moves with a calm that mystified me. I’m sure the challenge of a new town, a new house, and new arrangements for her children stressed her—but I never saw it. What I did see was that after we were settled in each new house, a day would come when Mother would eventually go out into the yard, kneel down, and start remaking the flower beds. Now, this didn’t make much sense to me. The beds were a mess, and we would be leaving before long anyway. What was the point of improving anything? The question didn’t seem to trouble her. Diligently, she worked in the dirt—pulling weeds, planting seeds, placing bright mums, training vines, bringing order out of chaos and care out of neglect. Every time we moved into a new rental house, out she went and got to work. And when it was time to leave, she willingly offered up the work she had done in those newly beautiful beds for the joy of the next tenant.
Her flower beds were my first exposure to the hard, rewarding work of a turnaround.
“Mom,” I asked her once, “don’t you get tired of moving from one rental house to another?”
Her answer has never left me. She said, “I never worry about how long we stay in one place as long as when I leave, the flower beds are in better shape than when I got there.” That’s turnaround leadership in a nutshell. You are not thinking primarily of your own experience. You are not letting your past keep you from your task. You simply make things better for those who come next. Your goal is to leave the flower beds in better shape than you found them.
Over the last nearly quarter of a century, I have had the privilege of leading the news-making turnarounds of three large organiza- tions on the edge of collapse—a megachurch and two universities. Turnaround has become a specialty for me. I have studied it in his- tory, practiced it in the three major phases of my career, and distilled its processes into the principles you are about to read. After all these years, I’ve come to this conclusion: what I call turnaround leadership is not something mystical, murky, or mysterious that only the especially gifted can do. I believe turnaround leadership is a skill—or, rather, a set of skills—that can be developed. It is a matter of vision—of seeing opportunity where everyone else sees an unmanageable mess, of tirelessly communicating a defining vision, and of making that vision a reality on the ground. It’s complicated and difficult and usu- ally exhausting, but it doesn’t have to be out of reach for most of us.
I have seen masterful relaunches staged by hundreds of great leaders I have studied. Lee Iacocca, CEO of Chrysler in the 1980s, comes to mind. He knew how to inspire and how to command, how to repair the inner machinery of his company with boldness and skill. He also knew how to embody the culture of his corpora- tion before the watching world. By the time he started appearing as Chrysler’s spokesman on those famous television commercials, he had already completed one of the great corporate turnarounds in his- tory. I also think of Steve Jobs. He was an unusual man, but there is little in the annals of leadership like his triumphant return to Apple, the company that he founded and that later fired him. As we all now know, he went on to create the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad, and in doing so he turned Apple around—transforming a generation in the process. Now that is turnaround leadership!
There are also a lot of bad examples on the pages of leadership history. In the 1980s and ’90s, “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap was the CEO of companies like Scott Paper and Sunbeam. Believing that business turnarounds were measured only in profits for shareholders, Dunlap routinely closed factories, squeezed operations, and turned the pain- ful, humiliating mass layoff into a dreaded art form. He refashioned companies through a ruthless scorched-earth policy that left thousands of people unemployed and made turnaround a dirty word nationwide. He apparently thought he was a success because he emerged from all of this with a hundred-million-dollar golden parachute for himself. Dunlap didn’t seem to care about the devastation he left behind until an SEC investigation revealed that his remarkable achievements were due more to accounting fraud than to astute management. The trials that ensued dragged on for years. Meanwhile, entire companies were driven into bankruptcy by his mythical brand of turnaround. His legacy? Several major business periodicals have included Dunlap on their list of the worst CEOs of all time. That is not servant leadership, and it is no way to make a turnaround.
Yet greatness is possible, and it has come to be nearly synonymous with a successful turnaround. Think of it: most of the people we call “great” in history were people who effected a strategic turn at a strategic time toward a strategic goal—Alfred the Great, Simon Bolivar, Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, and David BenGurion. Each of these had to summon a vision, summon a people to that vision, and summon wisdom to lead a nation up from disaster or decline.
In fact, this is one of the reasons I’m glad I first honed the craft of the turnaround in religious institutions. Frankly, there tends to be more wrongheadedness, more magical thinking, in faith-based insti- tutions than in any other. Faith is good, of course. I’m a man of faith. But faith is no substitute for wise action. Often I had to overcome bad theology and wispy concepts of leadership to turn the ship. This allowed me to get a firm grasp on what works and to learn how to articulate what works in clear language. Each success I made thrilled me at the possibilities of turnaround leadership for our lives, our nation, and our world. I believe in it so completely that I’ve decided to devote the rest of my life to helping people master the power of strategic turnarounds.
There could not be a better time for it. We are living in a day in which nearly every human institution needs to be reimagined, rein- vented, and relaunched—in short, turned around. We all know that our various levels of government are in desperate need of a return to first principles. We long for leaders who understand how to turn the ship of state toward her finest hour. Our industries need men and women who understand it is a new era, demanding a new kind of leadership skilled at creating new and creative corporate cultures. This means turnaround. Churches, schools, nonprofits, and businesses need turnarounds. In fact, if our nation responds to its present crises with the best it has to throw into the fight, I believe history may yet call us “the Turnaround Generation.”
There is more, though, and to understand it you must recognize a maxim most people never apply. It is this: if a principle of leadership is true, it is true for every kind of leadership. Now, I’m not talking about the technical side of leadership—how to run an airport or direct a roomful of accountants. I’m talking about how to inspire, position, coach, and empower people to do what they are made to do as part of a larger team. Whatever is true of Sony in this regard is true of your softball team. Whatever is true of General Electric when it comes to turning organizations—which just means large bodies of people—is in many ways true of any relationship. In fact, I’m certain that many turnaround truths work in marriage, work in friendship, and even work in the way we direct ourselves from within—the way we orchestrate our lives according to certain values and goals.
I’ve been fortunate; I’ve had great turnaround success. In fact, more than one business writer has referred to me as a “worker of miracles.” I can assure you, though, I am no miracle worker. The success I’ve had has come from being bold in the pursuit of a vision, implementing a plan, learning from my mistakes, and understanding what it takes to summon the best in people—not from just sitting around and hoping for a miracle.
You can do it too. Whatever your arena, whatever your gift, turnaround truths can help you reinvigorate and realign. It is an art we desperately need in these times, an art that is not the possession of geniuses alone, and an art we can master and transfer to the next generation.