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John Hamm - RCMEJohn Hamm

Unusual Leadership Excellence with CEO John Hamm

by Debra Black

On May 19, John Hamm told members of the Retail Consortium for Management Education to give him their best shots. Likening the interaction to a tennis game, he said, "The better shot somebody hits at me, the better shot I'll hit back."

Hamm, the author of Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills Required for the Practice of Great Leadership, talked about leadership quality and how it makes a difference.

"Leadership matters because it's one of those things that can change quickly. If you look at how hard it is to change the brand, service ethic, product line, or customer perception of a company, it takes months or quarters or years of consistent, disciplined activity," he said. "Leadership changes are often low-hanging fruit. They can be transformative in a very short period of time. My experience is that leadership matters, and it changes the game faster than anything else."

As an example, he gave the recent astonishing valuation of the Linked In initial public offering based on the quality of its leadership.

Hamm, a venture capital investor and advisor to business and nonprofit organizational leaders around the world, drew a clear distinction between consultants and advisors. "Consultants can get caught up in telling people what they want to hear. I would rather help people see what they need to see. I think all of us do what we need to do, as soon as we see it properly," he said.

Hamm presented his view of leadership that he's developed working with hundreds of leaders over the last decade, and explored the traits that make the difference between excellence and mediocrity.

"Leaders act in accordance with the way they see the world. We do this all the time, and we don't question perspective. The power is in the view," said Hamm.

In a study of 500 leaders, Hamm discovered several areas where leaders do not perceive their environments like they could:

Leaders regularly overestimate the perception of trust of themselves and the influences they have on the hearts and minds of others. They want to believe they're trusted more than they really are, because they don't think they've done anything to be untrustworthy. They think only big things make you untrustworthy, when in fact it's a lot of little things that build perceptions.

Leaders regularly overestimate the real alignment of energy, commitment, and incentives toward a shared vision with their followers. The reality is, "We're not quite as much on the same page as you thought we were," said Hamm.

Leaders regularly overestimate the value of communication they are delivering to those listening; they fall in love with their own message. The truth is, "We don't get it most of the time when you talk."

Leaders regularly underestimate the importance of meeting the basic needs of their followers. Being authentic, trustworthy, and compelling are non-negotiable traits when it comes to a leader's credibility, and leaders regularly underestimate the power of keeping those things alive. "The message to leaders is, just assume there's always a shortage. Leaders can't supply enough of the ability to relate, the willingness to trust, the compelling nature of following them. There's hardly enough to go around most of the time," said Hamm.

Leaders regularly underestimate the need to be in touch with a broader group of people. It turns out as organizations grow, leaders tend to allow themselves to be informed by a smaller group of people. It tends to follow the organizational chart, and that org chart can be disastrous in terms of informing you about reality.

Leaders regularly underestimate the power of the questions that define the dialogue. "I believe leaders are much more about good questions than good answers. A leader who lives in an answer domain doesn't get a lot of data from the organization. A leader who lives in a question domain gets a ton. What are the questions I want to be regularly putting out there for people to think about and talk about and discuss?" asked Hamm.

Leaders regularly massively underestimate the importance of a culture with integrity to its values. Cultures are built on values. "The only thing worse than having a culture with lousy values is one that has good values that are not adhered to. Values are about how we do things. Values are based on remembering things that we promised. Leaders remind us what we stand on."

Hamm sees leadership as a three-part playing field:


Credibility creates relationship and earns you the right to lead. "There is always a credibility game at play, no matter how long you've been a leader. If you're in a leadership position, and you expect people to follow you, then you are in the credibility game. It's always active. This game is always up and running," he said. Credibility is about who you are; it is a character phenomenon. It's all about being authentic, being trustworthy, and being compelling. "It is spectacularly effective for people to experience you as a safe person to be around," said Hamm.


Competence is a matter of skill; competence creates results. "We need our leaders to be competent, the moment after we need them to be credible," said Hamm. Ultimately, competence earns respect.

There is no substitute for being good at this. Competence shows up in three areas: you've got to be able to 1) acquire talent and from that make a team, 2) generate ideas and create plans, and 3) set metrics and manage the pace to get things done.


Consequence is about appreciating the impact and power of the role that you have. It means being responsible for how you lead and how that affects people. It's a mindset that says, "I want to lead in real time, knowing I'll be judged in due time." Having a difficult conversation in just a little different way can change everything, sometimes with just a few words. "You can communicate the same thing to somebody, and on the margin leave them either thankful that you had the conversation or hating you."

Organizational Trust

Hamm left RCME participants with some final thoughts about organizational trust.

"It's about safety. In organizational trustworthiness, three brilliant things happen: you get way more innovation, risk-taking, swinging for the fences, creating. Because the cost of an arbitrary mistake is low, and there are no arbitrary consequences. What would you do if the cost of failing was zero?

"I have a core belief that organization information is unreliable at altitude. As leaders, we have a demand for accurate data; we have a demand for the truth. Yet, as soon as you start categorizing a part of any information flow as not good for the messenger who brought it to you, that messenger will not bring it to you anymore. If we want information to be good, we have to stop judging it. If it gets painted good news/bad news, then it gets labeled good messenger/bad messenger."

Hamm closed by saying that there is just a handful of things that great leaders do that make them better than anyone else.

"And they're not complicated. They're not easy….but they're not complicated. People don't actually appreciate how much it matters. They think there must be a more complicated play they should be running, and I'm telling you there's not."

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