What Makes a Great Leader?

16/11/2009 at 7:45 am Leave a comment

Yvon Chouinard

Recently named by US News as one of America’s Best Leaders 2009, Yvon Chouinard is a passionate rocker climber, surfer, kayaker, fly fisherman and writer but is most noted for his environmental activism and the clothing and gear company Patagonia.

One must ask, what makes a great leader?  Well, according to US News, they judge based on the following criteria; Set Direction (25%), Cultivates a Culture of Growth (25%) and Achieves Results (50%).

Chouinard is not your typical executive as he is known to ignore the bottom line and refers to fellow business leaders as “corpses in suits”.  He leads his own brand of MBA (Management by Absence) and it’s proven effective.

His first business was born, in 1957,  out of discontent over the quality of climbing hardware.  He taught himself blacksmithing and began forging his own equipment.  Soon he was able to support himself by selling equipment to climbers from the back of his car.  By the 1970’s, his company grew to be was the largest domestic supplier of climbing equipment, and it began to dawn on Chouinard that he had become, by default, a businessman.  Along the way, Chouinard had the idea of making climbing knickers and double-seated shorts out of heavy corduroy. By 1973, an expanded clothing line grew popular enough to warrant its own label, and Patagonia was born.

Chouinard decided to blur the lines between work, play and family so employees could have flextime to surf when the waves were good or take care of a sick child. Patagonia made the “best-company-to-work-for” lists.  In 1984 he opened an on site cafeteria offering healthy, almost vegetarian food and started an on-site child care at headquarters – this led to an average of 900 applicants for every job opening.  In 1986, he committed the company to “tithing” for environmental activism by donating 1% of sales or 10% of profits, whichever was greater.

Some Patagonia philosophies include:

Change – Chouinard writes in regards to the corporate world and in the environment, “Only those businesses operating with a sense of urgency … constantly evolving, open to diversity and new ways of doing things, are going to be here 100 years from now.”

Environment – Despite being a self-professed pessimist about the fate of the planet, Chouinard writes that the cure for the end-of-the-world blues is action. Patagonia’s lofty goals in this area include: Lead an examined life; clean up our own act; do our penance; support civil democracy; influence other companies.

By walking the talk, Patagonia has done very well.  Chouinard claims that every time Patagonia has elected to do the right thing for the environment (i.e. switching to organic cotton and using recycled plastic soft-drink bottles as raw material for jackets), even when it costs twice as much, it’s turned out to be more profitable.

By pioneering these processes, Patagonia hopes to continue to convince other companies that green business is good business. Already, Chouinard writes, large companies such as Nike, Levi’s, Gap and Walmart buy organic cotton to blend in with their industrial cotton to support the organic movement without pricing themselves out of their markets.

Some of Chouinard’s most noteable accomplishments are;

Be sure to grab a copy of Chouinard’s biography, Let My People Go Surfing,  on your next trip to the bookstore or library.

Entry filed under: Business, Recommended Reading. Tags: , , , , , , .

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