Leadership Lesson #1

Recall The Two Motivators: Jan Carlzon Former Chairman SAS Airlines

“It is a hard fact that effective management must understand the soft center in every person. The true leader cares hard.””
—Peter Kostenbaum

Imagine that you are the CEO of an international airline. Facing a $20 million dollar deficit in the midst of a recession, the cost of jet fuel is at record levels and you have 10,000 employees on the payroll. European law prevents you from reducing headcount and the threat of bankruptcy looms just days away. What would you do? 

Sitting across the table from me was the person who had been in that position. Brought together by Inc Magazine, I had read his best selling book, Moments of Truth, yet never fully appreciated what he had accomplished or more importantly, how he had accomplished it, until that day.

The Choice of Love or Fear

Jan Carlzon undertook a corporate turn around of SAS Airlines that was 3 times as large as the one Lee Iaccoca managed at Chrysler. In 365 days, in less time than most organizations take to create a plan much less employ one, Jan and his team went from loss to profitability and in the process, re-built a languishing international brand.

That day at the table, sitting across from Jan Carlzon, I asked how he was able to lead such a remarkable and transformative turn around effort. Expecting an answer of strategy and tactics, I was shocked when Jan reminded me that we have choices between the two great motivators in life: love and fear. He said, “one can choose to manage by fear, but if you do, you will ensure that people within the organization will not perform to their capabilities. If you choose to manage by love—that is show people respect and trust, they will perform to their capabilities—to their potential. They will dare to take risks. They can even make mistakes. “ 

Jan’s lessons reminded me of environments where leaders had chosen to lead with love. They were places where:

  • Employees take risk;
  • People are engaged;
  • Services and innovations developed and championed by employees at all levels increases;
  • Information is freely shared;
  • Leaders are visible and accessible;
  • Values are treasured and serve to define the playing field;

In environments where leaders chose to manage with fear, I saw places where:

  • Teams fell apart; unions and management were adversaries;
  • Internal competition and office politics were prevalent;
  • Unengaged employees were eager to jump ship;
  • Toxic bosses and human resource practices penalized people instead of empowering them;
  • Financial numbers determined strategy;
  • The leadership team was not visible and surfaced only at staged and strategic times;

Transformational Change Efforts

After listening to Jan Carlzon that day, I came to the conclusion that it was much more difficult to choose to lead with love than fear because love required an innate trust of people and a befriending of uncertainty— a sort of jumping into the unknown and turning away from the way we were trained and taught to lead. It requires a sharing of power, resources and knowledge across all levels of the organization and the adoption of an optimistic attitude that people can and will rise to the occasion. It is leading in a way that is more intuitive than factual and the choice between the two motivators requires great courage. 

In contrast, a fear-based mentality is simply an easier way to manage. We’ve also been trained and taught and cajoled into managing with fear even though more than 100 years of managerial research points to a different way. Too often, in a corporate world filled with strategy, numbers, product cycles, bits and bytes, we underestimate the power of ordinary people to deliver extraordinary results. Too quickly we dismiss the human factors of love, trust, respect, and empowerment as “happy talk.”

Jan’s lever in transforming the large bureaucracy of SAS was his ability to create an environment where people at all levels could contribute. He realized that the entire future of the company, its very survival, was inexplicably tied to how well he was able to unleash talent everywhere at speeds faster than his aircraft traveled. 

Using his understanding of human motivation, Jan flattened the corporate hierarchy, sharing all information and engaging employees at all levels. People on the front line —those who touched customers, who loaded and unloaded bags from the conveyor belt, who cleaned the airplanes, who made the reservations, proved what Jan knew: “If you put people first, they will put customers first.”Engagement with the employees of SAS led to the development of innovative services, new products and a new vision for what the company was: “We used to fly airliners, now we fly people.”

Our Choices Determine The Results

Jan Carlzon demonstrated what Abraham Maslow’s research on human motivation proved three decades ago:

‘The path to financial and economic success is to treat working people as if they were high level contributors, not because of ‘The Golden Rule or anything like that but because this is the path to success of any kind whatsoever, including financial success.’

Love and fear as motivators in the workplace bring about different kinds of results. The use of fear may well bring short-term results but will never bring about long term, transformational results—the kind we are called to deliver in an increasingly competitive and global marketplace. Leaders like Jan Carlzon seek out the “soft center’ that resides inside of every human being. It is in the ‘soft center” where creativity, innovation, collaboration and teamwork resides. The use of fear closes it while the use of love (i.e. respect, care for the individual, values, diversity) opens and expands it. Will we unleash the soft center of those we lead and manage or scare it back into its hiding place?