Paul L. Caron

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Deuteronomy Leadership

Wall Street Journal op-ed: T-Mobile’s CEO and the Tribal Approach to Management, by Sam Walker (author, The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams (2018)):

Captain ClassOfficially speaking, John Legere is the chief executive of T-Mobile, the $68 billion wireless carrier. Unofficially, the 61-year-old telecom veteran has another title.

He is, hands down, the world’s most relentless corporate pugilist.

Since he arrived at T-Mobile in 2012, Mr. Legere has used every public forum at his disposal to bash and belittle his company’s chief rivals, AT&T and Verizon; or as he likes to call them, “Dumb and Dumber.” ...

It might be tempting to dismiss Mr. Legere’s aggressive leadership style and occasionally profane language (he describes his attacks as “jabs” and “good-natured ribbing”) as the product of one man’s singular personality.After all, most CEOs don’t sport shoulder-length hair, or wear motorcycle jackets to work, or have 6.4 million Twitter followers. ...

Before rendering judgment, however, there’s one interesting tidbit about Mr. Legere that’s worth considering. His opponents may loathe him—but a large majority of his employees seem to genuinely like the guy. At T-Mobile events, the marathon-running bachelor often enjoys receptions befitting a rock star, complete with the occasional marriage proposal. While Glassdoor’s annual employee surveys aren’t scientific, the 2019 edition gave Mr. Legere a 99% internal approval rating—No. 4 overall among his CEO peers.

Mr. Legere’s intensely tribal approach to management may seem new—but in a sense, it harkens all the way back to the Old Testament.

The four most famous words in the Book of Deuteronomy are “thou shalt not kill.” It’s a commandment of mercy meant to regulate the way all people, leaders included, treat one another.

At the same time, Deuteronomy also includes one notable exception to that rule. If some neighboring community chooses to worship false idols, it says, “Thou shalt surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly.”

Examples of “Deuteronomy management” are rare in modern business, but they do exist. Facebook ’s Mark Zuckerberg isn’t as publicly vitriolic, but like Mr. Legere, he’s received consistently positive reviews from his own employees while earning a reputation as a formidable and ruthless competitor.

This mindset is more prevalent in team sports—where one of the most prominent examples is Bill Russell, the former captain of the Boston Celtics who won a record 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons. Mr. Russell could be thoroughly nasty and arrogant toward opponents but was also selfless, caring and wholeheartedly loved inside the team. “One thing we’ve always had on the Celtics is mutual respect,” he once said. The military has a strong tradition of Deuteronomy managers, including James Mattis, a longtime U.S. Marine Corps general and former defense secretary. Gen. Mattis was renowned for showing both toughness in battle and extraordinary kindness to his charges. ...

It’s impossible to measure the precise value of a CEO’s leadership, but so far, Mr. Legere’s tenure at T-Mobile has been a ripping success. ... Despite all of this, Mr. Legere hasn’t inspired a wave of copycats. In fact, as I wrote in November, many major companies have gone the other direction—hiring low-key CEOs who make very little public noise. ...

“I’m outspoken and loud—and yes, sometimes I call out the other guys and point out their bad behavior,” Mr. Legere says. “Everything I do is about one thing: inspiring people to be better and constantly pushing for innovation. It’s been that way from day one, and I won’t change.”

Other Captain Class leadership columns:

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