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Randall Bell


The Small Will Survive and Thrive

We cannot allow the new and the flashy to distract us from what endures

Published: Thursday, March 9, 2017 - 13:02

This article is adapted from Me We Do Be: The Four Cornerstones of Success (Leadership Institute Press, 2017).

It’s easy to forget the small things. Often, as people advance in their careers and in the hierarchy of an organization, they get better and better at thinking big and forget to think small. On the highest floors of office buildings, heads are filled with abstractions, acronyms, and the latest buzzwords.

After a building is designed, constructed, and filled with tenants, engineers cannot simply ignore the foundation. No matter how many stories high and how many years it operates, a building must maintain the integrity of its foundation.

Likewise, no matter how high we go in business, we must always ensure that we maintain a strong foundation. If we plan to stick around for the long run, we cannot allow big thoughts and flashy abstractions to distract us from what endures. And what endures is small, simple, and has not changed much for thousands of years.

For the past 25 years, I have worked as a consultant on major disasters throughout the world. I have been to all 50 states and around the world, to all seven continents, consulting as a sociologist and economist. In my work on disasters, I have seen over and over how tragedies can be traced to breakdowns in simple habits and daily routines. It is fascinating—and sad—to go to the site of a tragedy after hearing months or even years of coverage and analysis, and see first-hand how the disaster manifests as small, mundane failures. In Chernobyl, a culture of day-to-day corruption resulted in lost lives, billions in damages, and generations of sick children.

On the other hand, there have been example of the opposite—where small good habits spread and engulf a whole organization. Like the cornerstones of a building, there are basic foundational elements we must maintain to continue operating on a high level. These basic elements can be summed up as humility, integrity, communication, and positivity.

Humility (Use power, don’t abuse it)

Power can be intoxicating, and intoxication leads to abuse. Abuse breaks down trust and respect, and eventually leads to the collapse of an organization.

In 1971, the Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated the ease with which humans abuse their authority, no matter how arbitrary. In this experiment, researchers placed two groups of students in a mock prison in the basement of a Stanford building. They were then randomly assigned to the roles of prisoners and guards. The researchers observed the two groups for several days.

As they watched, the researchers noticed that the students began manifesting either aggressive or rebellious behaviors depending on their roles. Although everyone knew that this was simply an experiment, the “guards” began to act rigidly and display contempt toward their supposed “prisoners.” They seemed to enjoy the authority and control. The guards increasingly pushed and even abused their authority—even though their authority was not real.

On the other hand, the prisoners banded together and rebelled against the guards. They planned escapes and harassed their captors.

The experiment had to be shut down prematurely and only after outside intervention. The guards were reluctant to give up their false authority.

Titles, designations, and degrees can create a false sense of authority that has no basis in the day-to-day reality of management. A badge and a gun do not make a person an authority figure. Neither do a suit and a nice office make somebody a manager. Authentic leadership in the office comes from small, daily actions.           

Integrity (Do the right thing)

The higher we climb in an organization, the fewer people are looking over our shoulders. As managers, we must often hold our own selves accountable. An attitude of integrity is at the foundation of enduring success. As the saying goes, we must do the right thing even when nobody is looking.

A few years ago, I sat down for lunch with Cal Ripken Jr., the great Hall of Fame baseball player who played shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles. Cal told me about one game that had tested him.

Cal had hit a double. As he stood on second base, he exchanged a few words with the shortstop. The shortstop mentioned that it looked from where he stood that Cal had choked up on the bat more than usual. Maybe that was why Cal had hit such a nice double.

Cal hadn’t knowingly choked up on the bat. But the more he thought about it, the more the comment got into his head. He started to over think it, and it made his head spin, distracting him from the game.

It occurred to him that when he was playing shortstop, he could make other players agonize just like he had. This, Cal thought, could be a good way to get an edge on the competition.

As soon as this thought occurred, Cal realized how silly it was. That just wasn’t his style. He knew that he needed above all else to preserve the integrity of the game, as well as maintain his own personal integrity.

Had Cal decided to use his position as shortstop to confuse and diminish the performance of his opponents, who would have known? It doesn’t matter because Cal would have known. When we are put in positions of authority and leadership, we must above all else follow our conscience—regardless of the benefits of betraying our integrity. Without integrity, we do not have authentic leadership.

After sitting and talking with Cal Ripken for a few hours, I thought to myself, “I want to be more like this guy.” His story described a moment of authentic leadership.

Communication (Communicate, don’t intimidate)

Besides challenging our humility and authority, the hierarchy and roles necessary for the functioning of an organization also create unnecessary, false obstacles to communication. It is important to remember that boundaries are not obstacles. Boundaries are necessary and crucial to management. We must be able to decide what to share with our employees and when. However, we must avoid creating obstacles to communication.

Our employees often know more than we do. A business in which employees feel intimidated into silence is in trouble. Open channels of communication are another foundation of enduring leadership.

Years ago, I was flying into Guam on a consulting assignment. As the plane made its approach to land, I noticed a large granite marker in the jungle on the side of a mountain right before the airport. I remembered that Korean Flight 801 had crashed on its final approach into Guam. The granite monument marked the site of this tragedy.

Later in the day, I drove to the marker and talked to several people who had been there on the night of the crash. It was a horrible event that still haunts many to this day.

A pilot then told me what had happened. The approach into Guam is tricky because the terrain comes up so quickly before the airport. In the case of the Korean airliner crash, the co-pilot realized the problem but was too timid to speak up and tell the pilot.

After the tragedy, new rules and regulations were put into place. A culture of team effort replaced the old hierarchy between the pilot and the co-pilot. Now, for example, pilots call each other by their first name, reducing the feeling of subordination of one above another. These are small things, but they make all the difference. We cannot create an environment where our employees feel too timid to speak about important matters.

Positivity (Keep it positive)

As we climb in an organization, we often have more burdens placed upon us. We find more—often justifiable—reasons to be stressed. This stress can lead to negativity. However, we must remember that circumstances do not create our attitude. It is our attitude that creates our circumstances. A positive attitude is another foundation of long-lasting leadership.

I once had lunch with Denise Brown, a sister of Nicole Brown Simpson, who many believe was murdered by O. J. Simpson. I said something about O. J. that I had heard in the news, and I’ll never forget her reply. She said, “Just keep it positive.” Just four words, but they made a big impact. While she had every justification to spend every moment in a rage, she had made a conscious decision to focus on positive things. I respected that. Denise reminded me that, even in adverse times, we can choose our attitude.

As managers, small, day-to-day expressions of positivity, such as a smile, a lighthearted joke, or a word of encouragement, can sow a seed of trust and communication. With one smile we can project humility, communicate, and express positivity without saying a word.

From capstones to cornerstones

My work across the world on some of the biggest disasters has given me an appreciation for the small and the routine. Seeing how so many large organizations can fail because of day-to-day corruption and abuse has made me appreciate those that survive and even thrive. What I have come to realize is that success is not so much about standing apart as it is about common, core values and daily routines. Just like a building has a capstone, we all have a unique gift, and to succeed we need to bring that uniqueness to the table. However, without a strong foundation, the capstone will not save the building. The core values of a business shape its destiny.


About The Author

Randall Bell’s picture

Randall Bell

Randall Bell, Ph.D., CEO of Landmark Research Group LLC, is a socio-economist, keynote speaker, and the author of Me We Do Be: The Four Cornerstones of Success (Leadership Institute Press, 2017). Bell’s problem-solving skills are well established having consulted on the attack on the World Trade Center, Flight 93 crash, BP oil spill, hurricane Katrina, nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll, and the JonBenét Ramsey and O.J. Simpson cases. Bell’s research has taken him to 50 states and seven continents, and generated billions of dollars for his clients. He’s been profiled in The Wall Street Journal, and on ABC’s World News Tonight and 20/20.