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THE CARING DICTATOR

Jeff Smith, president of Zion Corporation, is successful. Zion owns 206 franchises of the Sonic Accelerator retail chain, which generate $76 million in revenues for the company. Smith’s stores make 21 percent more than the national average, and turnover is incredibly low for retail industry, with a supervisor’s average tenure at 13.8 years. Smith knows what he wants, how to keep his employees, and how to run his business for high profit.

In a work world in which everyone will tell you that you need to be soft, participative, open to ideas, and empower employees, Jeff Smith appears to be an anachronism. He runs his business on the principle of “my way or the highway.” He tolerates little deviance from what he wants and from his instructions and training. He is absolutely sure he knows the best way, and more than one employee is scared to disagree with him. He likes keeping people a little off balance and a little uneasy so that they will work harder to avoid his anger. Smith even has his own “Leadership Commandments,” and he will fire those who break any one of them twice. The eighth Smith commandment is “I will only tell you one time.”

Smith’s stores run like clockwork. He does the top-level hiring himself and is reputed to spend as long as ten grueling hours with a prospective manager and his or her spouse. He wants to know about their personal lives and financial health and looks for right responses and any signs of reluctance to answer questions. Smith says: “I want them to understand this is not a job to me. This is a lifetime of working together. I want partners who are going to die with me.” If you are one of the selected few, you are expected to be loyal and obedient. Once a quarter, you can also expect a Smith “loyalty” meeting, where he will take you away with other supervisors to a secret location with no chance of escape. You can expect to be blindfolded, put through survival exercises, and sleep in tents before going to a luxury resort to discuss business.

For all their stress, trouble, and unquestioning obedience and loyalty, Zion employees and supervisors find a home, a family, a community; and a place to grow. If you have problems with your husband, like Sara, the wife of one of Zion’s supervisors, you can call Jeff. He will listen to you, chew your spouse out, and send him home for a while. Smith says, “I don’t want you to come to work unhappy, upset, about anything, because I don’t think you can be totally focused on making money if you’re worried.” He pays his employees considerably above national averages, plays golf with them, and gets involved in their personal lives. Smith wants to create a bond that lasts. A few years ago, he spent $200,000 to take 138 managers and their families to Cancun for four days. They got training on better time management and marketing techniques and on how to be better spouses.

Smith also likes to have fun. Practical jokes, including gluing supervisor’s shoes to the floor, are common. But he also works hard. Eighty-hour weeks are common, and he starts his days earlier than most. He is not above taking on the most menial jobs in the stores, and he is willing to show the way, no matter what. His presence, energy, and unbending confidence in his way make converts. Smith has created an organization that is consistent and simplifies everybody’s life.

  1. How would you describe Jeff Smith’s leadership style?

  2. Why is he successful? Would you work for him? Why? Why not?

  3. Suppose Jeff came to you, a leadership coach, and asked for your help. What would you tell him? Develop a “leadership development plan” for Jeff suggesting changes in his leadership approach you think are better than the one he now uses. Analyze what he is doing well and what needs change.


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