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Update: The power of “people first” leadership

September 1, 2014

Update: Arthur T. Demoulas has completed a 1.5 billion-dollar buyout of Market Basket, the popular Massachusetts-based grocery store chain that has been hemorrhaging money in recent weeks. The question is: Did “the people” actually win? Click here to read the latest.—Ed. 

What makes an army of employees walk off the job, boycott, and jeopardize their very well-being in order to demand that their leader be reinstated?

Chants of “Oh Captain, my Captain” rise to the surface of my mind as I read news story after story of impassioned employees crying out for the reinstatement of Arthur T. Demoulas, or “Arthur T,” the beloved ex-CEO of the New England-based Market Basket grocery store chain. But clearly he was not just any CEO of just any other US corporation. What did he do that was so meaningful for his employees?

Many will point to his commitment to quality food coupled with low-market prices. And while prices can be a reason for public outcry, it is hard to imagine that such a broad base of people would throw away their jobs, benefits, and main source of food for a few cents on the dollar off their favorite local produce. Among the countless new reports centered on this event, low prices are often mentioned as part of the story, but the overwhelming response to Arthur T’s leadership speaks of something else—something greater.

It must be more than Max Weber’s charisma. More than Daniel Goleman’s emotional intelligence. These are significant factors that are proven to have influence among leaders and their followers—but they are commonplace characteristics of today’s good leaders—what is expected. In spite of the pervasive societal mistrust of leadership today, there are good leaders out there, but they are not all achieving a Market Basket-type of followership.

People expect to be influenced, persuaded, even manipulated, or worse coerced, by those in power. Those with less power assume they are more vulnerable—they expect to be acted upon. Now, this is not to say that followers are all passive agents sitting around waiting to be acted upon, although, there are those who fall into this category. No, what I refer to here is the inevitable position that anyone is situated in when they have less power than another person.

Power and leadership are inextricable. Power has been a subject of prominent thought leaders for centuries—thought leaders who span across many fields of study (e.g., philosophy, physics, psychology, business, etc.). Friedrich Nietzsche is well-known for his concept of “the will to power”—what he saw to be the primary motivating force within and among humans. Alfred Adler in his Individual Psychology claimed that the inferiority-superiority dynamic is the driving force of the human psyche—that humans spend their lives in pursuit of social power to establish their own security.

A critique of a Nietzsche or Adlerian world view is not the focal point here; rather, their thinking points to how sensitive humans are to the use (and abuse) of power in society. There is no stronger symbol of human power than organizational leaders, and I suspect that it is why “Arthur T” has such a passionate and loyal following among his Market Basket employees. And when asked why they are willing to lose their jobs for Arthur T, managers and directors of the company give examples of his unwavering commitment and respect to even the lowest level employees:

“He cares more about people than he does about money,” says one worker.

“He always has time for his workers,” says another. “He frequently attends their family weddings and funerals.”

It’s actually quite simple. His employees trust him. When we experience leadership that wields power with humility and grace, it takes us by surprise and creates in us an overwhelming sense of admiration, appreciation, and adoration. Once people experience these rare emotions associated with another person, the resulting loyalty, commitment, and solidarity is powerful.

How do leaders come to garner these kinds of feelings among their followers? What makes a leader’s message, their brand, so compelling? A colleague and I were musing on these questions in the “creative corner” of our office days ago (the creative corner is the dubbed name of the place usually referred to as our desks), and she hit the proverbial nail on the head—share emotional experience.

Why do you think storytelling and narrative have become buzzwords of today’s most prominent leadership development circles? It’s not because storytelling, in and of itself, is such a profound phenomenon. Rather, through personal stories, we create rich grounds for shared emotional experience with our audience. Done well, people are moved to action—to vote for a particular candidate or policy, to donate to or volunteer for a social cause—when their beloved CEO is ousted by a contentious family member.

Arthur T spent time with his employees, shared stories with them—shared life with them. I don’t know all the details, nor do I think he is a saint, but it’s clear that he did create opportunities for his followers to have shared emotional experiences with him.

Not all leaders are charismatic and have chart-topping emotional intelligence, nor do they need to. The secret behind Arthur T’s leadership is his humble use of power and creation of shared emotional experiences with his employees. He showed respect for his employees and took them seriously—something that, unfortunately, is a rare thing to come by in today’s marketplace. Fair wages and generous benefits are important factors to the Market Basket story, but it is the leadership behind them that has truly inspired the Arthur T loyalists.

So let’s hear it. Do you take your people seriously and share real experiences with them? They’d work harder and better if you did.



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