The Leader is an enabler2

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The Leader is an enabler2
Tom Wilson, HR Consultant, United States

The Tools of Transformation: expanding horizons by demanding greater moral sufficiency.

Within the context of the Mission-Men-Self ethos of servant leadership, the Leader enables those around him or her to transcend their personal expectations as a means for achieving the common purpose. This may require the deflation of the ego-based self-esteem of some while enticing greater moral sufficiency in others, and may not be a pleasant experience in the moment. But by submitting to Mission before Self, the Leader gains the moral leverage necessary to enable superiors and subordinates alike to be all they can be. The following is a case study of this leadership model in practice.

In 1979, I managed a saloon for Jim Kimsey, the venture capitalist who founded AOL. I was actually trying to recruit him as a player in the X-Avia Project, which was a joint venture with Soviet aerospace to produce the US YaK-40 jetliner in Youngstown Ohio and take it public on the NYSE. We needed a venture capitalist and I wanted Kimsey to do for us what he eventually did for Steve Case.

Our relationship was somewhat problematic. He is a West Point graduate, a Green Beret and had served as Gen. Creighton Abram’s Aide-de-Camp and, as a Vietnam Veteran, I expected there to be a greater rapport than there was. The fact was that Kimsey had his head struck pretty well up his ass. He was content to be comic relief to his business partner, Gordon King, who was the creative force behind Bullfeathers on Capital Hill and in Old Towne, Alexandria I discovered early on that he really didn’t know much about running a restaurant and that the only real problem with the joint was that he was too cheap to put the money into it to make it competitive in the prime location and market it was in.

He once came into me and said that I needed to get the synergies all working at the restaurant. I had never heard the term before (I suspected it was one of those buzz words stock brokers use to convince their customers), so I asked him what it meant and he mumbled something about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. I understood what he meant and I understood he didn’t understand how it applied to his own business: we had synergies coming out of the wazoo: what we didn’t have was a facility that could sustain and capture those synergies because it was just worn out.

Well, I doubled Gross Sales in 6 months and got liquor costs under control but I never could get the food costs in line and that ended my career at The Exchange. But before that occurred, I was also getting nowhere in capturing his interest in the aerospace project. At that time, Jim was what we called in the army “half stepping” which means that he was phoning in his performance. He was perfectly happy with his role as a third string bar owner in the DC market.

One day, I needed something and went to another bar he owned to pick it up and he was there and had a bone to pick with me about something. So, we went into one of those eye-ball-to-eyeball confrontations that West Pointers love, where the first guy to blink loses. I hate that. I have sensitive eyes and, at the time, wore contacts, which made it worse, and I grew up with a dad who did the same thing and I just went out of my way to avoid the whole situation.

But I couldn’t this time, so I hypnotized him. I had hypnotized my dad in a similar situation when I was a junior in high school. I had read something in a Special Forces manual about resisting interrogation and this particular technique was discussed. Like my dad, Kimsey went out like a light: we could have strung Christmas tree lights on him and left him over night and the only consequence would have been he would have been confused about dates for the rest of his life. He’s standing there, drilling laser beams through the back of my skull and I’m figuratively walking around in his psyche, trying to find the on-off switch for the executive machinery he developed in the Army and was underutilizing in his current role. My only concern was bringing him back out of it, the same concern I had with my dad, but the whole episode took less than two minutes and he strutted away, satisfied he had made his point.

The problem with this kind of intervention is that the chances of him actually coming on board with the aerospace project were significantly reduced. I knew it at the time and my hope was that, if I could engage his executive talents intellectually, more or less, I could get him past the barriers this sort of communication creates. But, before I could do that, I had to kick him in the ass, figuratively speaking, to jump start his slumbering competitive desires.

A few days later, he came up and confronted me again and demanded to know why I never paid any attention to the advice he gave me and I told him his advice had all the practical value of a bucket of warm spit. At that time, Kimsey was one of the most lethal people I knew: he’s the kind of guy you want on your side in a fire fight, but that wasn’t the way to keep him on your side and I knew it. But I needed to get passed his ego and crack the cosmic egg, so to speak. When the ax fell, I wasn’t surprised, although the food costs were cited as the proximate cause. Almost immediately after my dismissal, he adopted the program of renovations I proposed and then sold the bar, which is still a strong performer in the market.

And I never was able to recruit him for the aerospace project. I went to him a few months later and proposed the relationship formally and he demurred and handed me off to another venture capitalist who immediately tried to steal the project and took a dog-and-pony show to Moscow and that and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan pretty well queered the deal for everyone.

In 1986, I married a woman who was working at the leading edge of touch screen technology for the military and I happened to run into Kimsey on the street and we got talking and he put himself into a hypnotic state spontaneously so I could take another look around and help him past something. I didn’t know anything about what he was doing, but he was working on the IPO that would become AOL and he was troubled because he didn’t understand what Steve Case was proposing. I am surmising this from the various accounts of what he was doing and how AOL developed and the timing, but he did tell me that he was working on a venture involving computer games and he didn’t know what to do with it. So, I told him I would tell my wife to make a marketing call because she was essentially working in that area and he said ok and we went our separate ways. (She had the meeting with him. She said he was late and rude and we didn’t talk about what they talked about, but it is my impression that she validated whatever it was Case was proposing to comfort Kimsey sufficiently to move forward).

In 1994, I called him with the hopes on selling him on putting AOL through JumpStart Training. From my talks with him, I went out, bought a PC and went on-line. After a couple of months, it became apparent that AOL had some serious cultural pathologies that JumpStart Training would mitigate and I went back to him again. I got nowhere: it is hard to tell someone on the way to becoming a billionaire that the culture of success at AOL contained the dysfunctional attributes that could eventually cripple the organization but that’s what happened. The management cadre that evolved around Kimsey all tried to be Kimsey with all their swashbuckling ways, but they didn’t have Kimsey’s training or experience and that includes 5th Wave High Performance. They pushed the Harvard Business Model to its logical extremes and, when they discovered themselves over the abyss, like Robert McNamara in Vietnam, the law of gravity took over. And, like Robert McNamara, they still don’t understand what went wrong.

Kimsey’s leadership style was reflected in everything that occurred in AOL’s dazzling rise to the summit, but if I could have introduced JumpStart Training and the 5th Wave High Performance technology into AOL, it would still be AOL-Time Warner.

At the time of this intervention, Kimsey was worth about $3 million. As a result of the series of interventions, Kimsey is currently worth upwards of $1 billion. I didn’t create a thing in Kimsey beyond a dissatisfaction with the limits of his circumstances as a saloon keep in contrast to the personal vision he was allowing to languish. I did challenge him to a greater moral sufficiency. The important elements of a transformation process are mission, process and activity. Kimsey was a player before I met him: I just got him moving and got out of his way. He created his own mission and the rest is history.

umpStart Training and The Points of Light Program can do the same thing for individuals and community organizations across America, including Fortune 500 Corporations, safely and in a time manner, that I did for Jim Kimsey without all the drama.

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Other Views by this Author: Vietnam and the Defeat of the Harvard Business Model | The Points of Light Program | The organization is a community | Protocol for Large System Change

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