Walk the Walk: The #1 Rule for Real Leaders – Book Review

by Alan Deutschman. (2010). New York: Portfolio/Penguin. 182 pages.
Reviewed by Diane Byington, Ph.D.

walkthewalkDeutschman starts out with a little-known story about Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1962, King was speaking at a gathering of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and, in the middle of his speech, a white man jumped on the stage and punched him in the face several times so hard that he staggered backward and spun half around. He managed to turn back to face his assailant and then he dropped his arms, refusing to defend himself. The man was pulled away, but King insisted on talking to him privately, and he refused to press charges. King’s speech at that meeting was on nonviolence, but his refusal to fight back inspired his followers far more than his eloquent words.

Deutschman’s proposition is that we need to see our leaders “walking the walk” as well as “talking the talk” if we are going to be willing to follow them through difficult circumstances. As a journalist, he has a suitcase full of stories about leaders who successfully walked the walk, and as a result made significant changes in their environments. The stories were fun, and included tales that ranged from Eleanor Roosevelt to Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and a host of others. Reading these stories was the best part of the book.

He also includes stories about leaders with great words who didn’t walk the walk. The one that stood out for me was about Al Gore, whose documentary An Inconvenient Truth, focused on the need for significant lifestyle change in order to combat global warming, won an Oscar and influenced millions of people, but whose 10,000 square foot mansion cost $1200 per month to heat. Gore lost leadership opportunities by living in a house four times the size of an average American house, which gave the impression that changes in lifestyle were important for other people but not for him. We haven’t heard much from Mr. Gore since these inconvenient inconsistencies were made public.

Sadly, the book is long on stories and short on guidance that might help beleaguered leaders more effectively walk the walk. Probably the most helpful discussion covered what Deutschman calls “The Rule of One or Two.” He states that “the most crucial role of a leader is establishing and instilling the one or two values that will be most important for an organization or a movement or a community.” Many organizations prescribe a number of values for their employees to follow, but in actuality, these values conflict with each other.

For example, the Coca-Cola Company in 2004 set out a vision of five goals: profit, people, planet, partners, and portfolio (meaning the company’s collection of hundreds of brands). They also had a list of seven shared values: leadership, passion, integrity, accountability, collaboration, innovation, and quality. These sounded great, but how would the organization’s leaders make trade-offs among its five goals? For example, which would be most important, profits or people? Deutschman claims that Coca-Cola is typical of many large corporations: “its top executives devote an impressive amount of time, energy, and money to talking the talk about gallant goals and virtuous values, but ultimately they’re driven by the first virtue of short-term profits.”

Leaders should decide which one or two values are most important for their organizations, and then stick with them through good times and bad. For example, he claims that Coca-Cola’s top two values were actually profit (short-term) and predictability. “When you put those two together, the message is: ‘You will tell us in advance exactly how much to expect your quarterly profits to rise, and you will deliver on these expectations.'”

Deutschman asserts that, when leaders walk the walk: they show what’s really important, they show who and what comes first, they share the struggle and the risk, they gain a firsthand view, they take steps that every potential follower can follow, and they inspire belief. Heady concepts, and his examples inspire us to try even harder to lead by example.

Unfortunately, the hardback edition came out in 2009 and was probably written in 2007, before the recession hit and made some of his examples laughable. In this paperback edition he added a final chapter that admits organizations sometimes fall down in their attempts to walk the walk. For example, one of his shining stories early in the book is about Goldman Sachs and its longtime leader, Sidney James Weinberg, who ran the organization from 1930 to 1969 and whose ability to walk the walk led Goldman to reign as the top house on Wall Street for a half century. However, in the past few years Goldman has been vilified for relentlessly pursuing its own shortsighted self-interest at the expense of its clients. Deutschman explains how a profound cultural shift within the organization in the 1990s pushed the organization to change its orientation from making money advising clients to playing the market on its own. After everything crashed, the organization took $10 billion in federal bailout money and returned to its modus operandi in speculation. In the book’s final chapter, Deutschman cites Goldman as an object lesson in negative results when an organization changes its values from protecting its clients’ long-term best interests to pursuing its own short-term self-interest.

I’m sure Deutschman could write an entire book about this one organization and the others that have turned from gold to rust in recent years, but I came away wondering if “walking the walk” is more complicated than most of the book suggests. It may be easier to set an example when times are good than when times are bad. So, if you read this book, be forewarned that it kind of falls apart at the end.

— Diane Byington is a writer and coach who consults with The Booth Company.

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