If you are going to lead people, you’d better demonstrate that you care more about them than you do about yourself.

So says Don Knauss, Chief Executive Officer of Clorox.  Mr. Knauss was featured in Adam Bryant’s Corner Office in Sunday’s The New York Times.

Leaders who really believe and act on that basis build credibility and trust with their employees.  “You can run an organization based on fear for a short time.  But trust is a more powerful, long-term and sustainable way to drive an organization.”

Mr. Knauss said his stint in the Marines provided him a foundation for a leadership philosophy that has served him well.  His seminal moment happened during field exercises with an artillery unit at a base on Hawaii’s big island.  The unit had been in the field for several weeks and had been eating c-rations (canned food) for several days.  The commander had ordered hot food for the base camp.  Knauss had been up since 5 in the morning and was pretty hungry.  “I started to walk over and get in the front of the line when this gunny sergeant grabbed my shoulder and turned me around.  He said:  ‘Lieutenant, in the field the men always eat first.  You can have some if there is any left’.”

The timeless lesson:  it is all about the people, Mr. Knauss said.  That is the Marine Corps approach and Mr. Knauss said he has never forgotten it.

Mr. Knauss’ other thoughts on leadership and people include:

  • There is a head side and a heart side to leadership.  On the head side, do not make it too complicated.  That is why leaders fail.   On the heart side, make it about your people.  If you are going to engage and retain the best and the brightest people, you have to demonstrate that you care about their success.
  • The higher you move in an organization, the more power you have.  “The less you use that power you have been given, the more authority and trust people will give you,” he told Mr. Bryant.
  • Whatever business you are in there are fundamentals.  You cannot let yourself get bored with the fundamentals.
  • Most employees try to do a good job.  They want to be proud of where they work.  Fear-based leadership is counterproductive and will drive out the best people who actually do the work.
  • In recruiting, take passion over pedigree and then determine whether they can think strategically, creatively and analytically.  And look for people who have a track record of developing their personnel.
  • In creating the organization, emphasize communication and informality over formality and hierarchy.  Formality slows things down.