Hope, the Leader’s Special Sauce

Written By Randy Hall  |  Business Goals, Leadership 


The job of a leader has gotten much harder over the past year or so. Let’s face it, it’s relatively easy to get out in front of people and be positive and uplifting when things are going well and business is growing. Lately though, leaders have had to take the stage and deliver somber news and a dismal outlook Leaders who want to keep their organization strong during this period, though must still find a way to focus on a message of hope, possibilities and resolve. That’s what leaders do.

That’s not to say that leaders need to pretend everything is rosy when it’s not or lose touch with the harsh realities that face their organization. But one of the biggest jobs any leader has is helping others see a way out, no matter how dark the situation looks.

In 2003, McDonald’s posted a loss of $343 million and had suffered from consistent sales declines for over two years. The stock price had tumbled from the 30’s to below 13 in about ten months. Stock analyst Jim Kramer had this to say about the company

“There can be no fixing of McDonald’s because there is no McDonald’s. The company itself can’t control its franchises. The franchises used to be the source of so much growth and so much profit, but now the franchises can’t be reined in and they can’t be fixed. McDonald’s has become a rogue operation…What can McDonald’s do to save itself? Nothing at this point, nothing.”

When the board brought Jim Cantalupo out of retirement to become the new CEO he brought back the original special sauce that had been changed in an effort to cut costs, he also brought back hope.

Cantalupo created what he called a “plan to win” and together with Charlie Bell, his COO who would succeed Cantalupo after his fatal heart attack and then himself succumb to colon cancer, set out to re-energize the company. The Chief Marketing Officer, Larry Light, had this to say about the change in attitude and mindset that Cantalupo and Bell brought back to the organization.

“The doom-and-gloom scenario was transformed by Jim and Charlie’s enthusiasm and unquenchable belief in the McDonald’s brand. Together, they turned the sense of brand urgency into a galvanizing brand rallying cry of “being bigger by being better.”

The pair is widely lauded for their strategy and their ability to execute it and return McDonalds to success. By late 2004 the stock had climbed back into the 30’s and the company was enjoying operating profits higher than it had seen in over a decade. McDonald’s even maintained their upward trajectory through the death of both CEOs. None of it would have been possible though, if hope not been restored to the company first and maintained throughout the turnaround. Create any strategy you want; if the people in the organization don’t believe it’s possible, it will never get executed. You could certainly argue that hope was the special sauce that saved McDonalds.

People are willing to move toward a vision only if they truly believe they can get there. The job of any leader is to not only to create a compelling vision but also to inspire in others the belief that it can be reached. In this day and age when there are so many challenges facing businesses, communities and even families, leaders need to focus even more on the messages they deliver and the way they are received. If leaders lose their own sense of hope, they also lose the ability to foster it in others. When that’s gone, so is the ability to lead.

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