â€œOur upper level executives, from the CEO down to our vice president level, were contractually entitled to receive bonuses,â€ the CEO said. Familiar language, right? Edward Liddy, CEO of AIG? Well, no. Al Schultz, is CEO of Valassis, a Livonia, Michigan-based company that provides value to consumers through coupons, mailers, and online incentives. For nine straight years Valassis was on the Fortune magazine list of â€œ100 Best Companies to Work For.â€* So, what did Al Schultz do?
He did not throw up his hands, powerless in facing these contractual obligations. Instead, he asked â€“ in light of tough times that had included employee layoffs – that the executives offer their bonuses to the board to use in the best interests of the company. Every single executive – through what we can assume were varying mixes of moral duty, corporate commitment, peer pressure, and boss-pleasing behavior – passed on his or her contractually entitled bonus. Many thanked Al for asking them to do what they thought was the right thing. (When Al told this story at our CEO-to-CEO forum at the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, I had to ask the crowd to cheer. I couldnâ€™t help but note how quick we all are to wax and wail at the repulsive behavior of AIG executives; yet weâ€™re so slow to laud exemplary behavior.)
My favorite line from The Leadership Challenge by my favorite leadership authors, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, comes screaming to mind, â€œOnly challenge produces the opportunity for greatness.â€ Where the AIG execs passed on the opportunity for greatness â€“ or just plain decency – the Valassis executives modeled the way with flying colors, sacrificed their personal rights to build a greater organization. And these opportunities are everywhere today!
Iâ€™m dreaming of a new capitalism â€“ and a new kind of governmental organization, too – driven by fundamentally great behavior, where leaders lead by thinking foremost of what they can give, of how they can support their people, of how they can serve their clients, build great culture, and contribute. Not by thinking â€œwhatâ€™s in it for me.â€ This challenge offers everyday leaders a whole new opportunity to shape just such cultures. How can youâ€¦.
Lead with your best self?
* Valassis was prevented by Fortuneâ€™s rules from applying during the past two years, because they have had a major acquisition. They are eligible again this year and are applying.