When I interviewed Ross Perot for my book, Visionarie$ Are Made Not Born, I asked him about leadership. After all, here was a man who exhibited great leadership in business, in the military (U.S. Naval Academy and later the Navy) and in the geopolitical world (saving captives in Viet Nam and Iran) and who tried hard to be leader of the free world when he ran as an independent for President of the United States. Perot immediately said that he didn’t learn leadership at the Academy but learned it from his father.
Perot’s father wasn’t a business tycoon, military officer or political officeholder. He was a small-time cotton trader in Texarkana. What made Perot say that he learned leadership from his father, not from one of our great military academies or from all the other influences and experiences of the long, full life of this extraordinarily successful businessman, patriot and leader?
It’s simple. Perot understands what leadership is really about. Here are a few lessons on leadership I gleaned from my interview of Ross Perot:
1. Be good to all your people
He talked about how his father treated his employees respectfully.
2. Let them know you have their backs
He risked his money, his reputation and even his life to help and save employees (and servicemen) when they were in trouble.
3. Don’t ask them to take risks that you won’t take yourself
When leadership requires heroism, you should remember that “heroism” includes an “I” not a “U.” Perot could have simply sent his hired gun, Col. Arthur (“Bull”) Simon, to do his life-saving work. Simon was certainly up to it, but he needed someone to tell the captive EDS guys what to do when the action began. Perot was the most likely to gain Ayatolla permission. That was especially dangerous for Perot; he would have been an ideal hostage, but he wasn’t inclined to lead by staying at his desk. That’s not what his father would have done.
4. Follow the Highest Standard
As the largest shareholder and a Director of GM, as a result of them buying EDS, he felt it incumbent on him to visit the workers on the production floor. He was told by the CEO that he should refrain. GM’s inferior governance standards would have been the easiest way to serve and the safest way of keeping his cushy board seat. Perot, however, knew that the highest standard was the right one to follow.
Unintended Consequence: Perot’s actions led GM’s CEO to pay Perot a premium for his stock in order to get rid of him.
My purpose in interviewing Ross Perot was to learn about a great visionary and how he taught his son, Ross Jr., to be one too. However, in addition to being a great business visionary, Perot was an accomplished leader. The discussion referred to above was what I call “an interview dividend.” It has been my good fortune to be the beneficiary of such dividends repeatedly, one of the positive byproducts of interviewing extraordinary people.