The Willingness to Be Unpopular

I believe in always conducting business with integrity and treating everyone with respect. I’ve quoted Henry Kravis before, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working. “If you don’t have integrity, you have nothing. You can’t buy it. You can have all the money in the world, but if you are not a moral and ethical person, you really have nothing.”

But despite the fact I play fair and treat people well doesn’t mean I’m universally loved — far from it. In a career as a Turnaround Authority, you have to make many unpopular decisions. If you want to be everybody’s friend, you’ll never make it in this business. It’s like that quote by Harry Truman, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” The same goes in the turnaround business.

To be an effective leader, you have to be willing to be unpopular at times. I’ve been so unpopular at times that I’ve been shot at – twice! When you catch people not doing what they are supposed to do or need to reduce staff or benefits, people get unhappy.

But good leaders often have to make decisions that upset people. Take a look at Abraham Lincoln, considered one of our finest presidents. He was also one of the most unpopular. The press hated him and characterized him as a buffoon. He received death threats, one of which was printed in a Mississippi newspaper with a reward of $100,000 offered for his “miserable, traitorous head.” Members of his own party hated him. There is even a book called “The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln: The Story of America’s Most Reviled President.” When he died, a paper in Texas said,  “The world is happily rid of a monster that disgraced the form of humanity.”

A truly great CEO will make unpopular decisions for many reasons — to save the company, to ward off competition, to prepare for future changes in the marketplace. In 2004, the industry thought Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg was bluffing, and even worse, crazy, when he unveiled his unpopular plan to lay down fiber-optic cable across the country to the tune of $24 billion. Verizon is now the nation’s top carrier.

When Howard Schultz came back as CEO of Starbucks in 2008, he took responsibility for the bad situation the company was in, despite the fact he hadn’t been at the helm during the previous eight years. The share price was down 50% with news sources claiming Starbucks was no longer relevant and would be killed off by McDonald’s.

Because the cost was so high at a tough time in the company’s history, his decision to fly 10,000 store managers to New Orleans for a conference was an unpopular one. But he credits that conference with turning the company around. “If we hadn’t had New Orleans, we wouldn’t have turned things around. It was real, it was truthful, and it was about leadership,” he said in an interview in the Harvard Business Review.

And let’s talk about one of the most unpopular CEOs of this century: Steve Jobs. He was fired from his own company at the age of 30. Rather than wallow in defeat, he created a new company, Pixar Animation Studios. In 1996, he returned to Apple, became its CEO the following year and created products like the iPod, iPhone and iPad.

Think about those examples the next time you have to make an unpopular decision. As the former prime minister of the UK Tony Blair said, “Leadership can be an unpopular business. The art of leadership is saying no, not yes. It is very easy to say yes.”

And look at it this way, odds are you won’t get shot at.

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