disillusioned man

Bob Chapman's claim to fame, according to his publicist, is that he has done more for his employees than possibly any other CEO. All of his employees, not just those on the ladder's top rung.

That sort of claim is hard to verify. We're not even going to try. Whether or not he is the most compassionate leader in American business is not what's important. It's that he is one of them, and that he's given a blueprint for others to follow in his footsteps.

That blueprint comes in the form of a book titled Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family, co-authored by Raj Sisodia. It promotes what Chapman calls "Truly Human Leadership."

Offices of Love – and Disillusion

Bob Chapman
His book arrives on shelves at a time when everyone seems to be talking about "servant leadership.” When companies like Zappo’s succeed with flat org charts and the habit of calling organizational leaders “monkeys.”

When startups and tech firms shower their employees with fringe benefits like cheese whiz and napping rooms. And when corporate CEOs seem as eager to wax on about company culture and the value of their employees as they are about a good quarter.

Meanwhile, according to surveys that Chapman cites, three of four American workers feel disengaged at their jobs and 88 percent of them feel they work at an employer that doesn't care about them.

In other words, we're at a time of contradictions, hypocrisy and smoke and mirrors.

We’re at a time when a truly compassionate, inspirational, motivational leader can stand out from those CEOs who are just mouthing the positive messages.

How to Engage Your Employees

Chapman agrees that the time is ripe for a CEO willing to follow his Truly Human Leadership style. For starters, the 21st century worker, particularly the young worker, is different than past generations of employees.

"It is clear that people have less interest in business careers; they are seeking roles where they think they will find more meaning," said Chapman, who still serves as CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, a $2 billion, privately held capital equipment and engineering consulting firm.

Meanwhile, he said, many employers have not changed. Public companies still use layoffs "as a tactic for share price growth and stability."

Awakening Real Leadership

Into this mess, he has offers a book that he hopes will become "the handbook for leadership regardless of your field."

In Chapman’s vision for where his efforts can lead, Barry-Wehmiller becomes an example of how to marry academic theory with capitalism's reality as an example of "People, Purpose and Performance."

The book Everybody Matters, Chapman said, could become what it takes to awaken in organizations the notion that business has the power to do good. And what it takes to awaken in business schools the realization that they ought not be teaching management — but leadership, as defined as stewarding the live entrusted to them.

"That every child that eventually goes to work for an organization can discover, share and be appreciated for their gifts in the pursuit of a vision," Chapman said.

This all might sound like very touchy-feely, magic-bullet kind of fluff. Chapman, however, is forthright about a couple things. It isn't easy.

"[Truly Human Leadership] is so outside the way we are taught in our professional education and what people experience in organizations that they simply don’t know where to start and it seems really ‘hard’ to care," he said.

As he explains in the book, he is calling for nothing short of a “rethink” and a “revolution” in leadership in a U.S. business culture that is in the midst of a leadership crisis.

And by caring, he isn't simply talking about "being nice" or treating employees like we're all playing in an under-5 t-ball league.

“Caring is making sure that we the organization has a solid business model and that it has leadership skills and practices that allow people to share their gifts fully towards a common vision,” he said.

Blueprint for Leaders

The blueprint that Chapman draws up can be summed up as:

  • Humility and humanity: Leaders ought to be able to recognize when old systems don’t work, and open themselves up to employees about these failures and in search of news ways of doing things
  • Responsible freedom: Give room for workers to take ownership of their work, while ensuring their responsible for results
  • Recognition and celebration: Allow employees to feel “personally significant” at work by recognizing and rewarding them, and giving them opportunities to do so for colleagues
  • Training: Barry-Wehmiller has its own “university,” which allows it to embed its leadership principles in the organization

Of course, bullet points don’t do justice to efforts to transform American business leadership. That might take a book by a business leader who’s done the most for the cause. Or at least a lot.

Title image by Gudbjörn Valgeirsson.