Leadership Variation

Gerwig 2015-04-03

Have you ever heard of Stew Leonard’s? They are a small, boutique supermarket chain in Connecticut and New York that’s been highlighted on both The Sopranos and Seinfeld. And way back in the day, Tom Peters regularly used them as an example of an organization that provided a unique experience and world-class customer service. Unfortunately, one of their owners got into trouble for tax evasion. Very disappointing.

Recently I had the opportunity to visit a Stew Leonard’s in Connecticut. And while I don’t support tax evasion or illegal activities of any kind, I do plan to shop occasionally at Stew Leonard’s. They are unique. They provide great customer service. And I’m a sucker for “second chances”, so I’m giving them one. Did I mention the tax evasion was 20 years ago?

While I was meandering through the store (and if you’ve even been to a Stew Leonard’s you’ll know why I said meandering), I came to their produce section and saw some delicious-looking red bell peppers. They looked amazing. Bright. Fresh. Red. Consistent.

Okay, I admit “consistent” may be an odd word to describe a vegetable, but that’s one of the first things I noticed, how consistent the peppers were. They might not have been perfectly uniform, but for a garden vegetable, they looked remarkably similar. The picture above doesn’t really do it justice so I hope you’ll take my word for it (or visit Stew Leonard’s for yourself).

The consistency of the peppers reminded me of numerous lessons I’ve had on variation over the years. Dr. Deming used to say “all variation is a loss to society.” Now inconsistency of peppers in Stew Leonard’s store may or may not be a “loss to society” but I bet they sell more because the peppers not only look good but show minimal variation.

And there’s a lesson here for leaders as well. Your consistency matters. The leadership variation you demonstrate impacts those around you for good or bad. The higher the variation, the more negative the consequences. The lower the variation, the more positive the consequences.

A few examples:

  • As a parent, if you praise your child for getting a grade of “B+” in science on one report card, but you criticize it on the next (asking why they didn’t get an “A”), your inconsistency might confuse and anger your child.
  • If you don’t consistently enforce company policies, how will your organization respond? You might be accused of playing favorites.
  • As a leader, what happens if you praise Finance but never say anything positive about Human Resources? Your leadership variation might cause hard feelings and silos to develop.

Certainly there is a place for situational leadership. I’ve written about it myself. So yes, there’s a balance. But there’s also a subtle (and critical) difference between leadership variation and situational leadership. For example, if a leader ignores goal achievement in Engineering but always celebrates goal achievement in Sales, that’s leadership variation. If a leader celebrates differently in Engineering and in Sales, that’s situational leadership. Perhaps the Sales organization would like to attend a baseball game when they reach their goal while the Engineering organization would like to have a golf outing.

The key is to demonstrate low leadership variation. Be consistent, like Stew Leonard’s peppers. Don’t show favorites. Don’t succumb to emotional mood swings. Treat people and different parts of your organization consistently. Don’t play favorites if you have more than 1 child. Don’t send inconsistent messages by your behavior or your actions. And work to reduce your leadership variation.

What about you? Have you experienced first-hand leadership variation from another? What was the result? What did it teach you?

As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.

Dr. is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]LeadStrategic.com.


Photo by Author

3 thoughts on “Leadership Variation

  1. Robert, years ago I had the opportunity to hear Stew Leonard’s son speak at a Walmart meeting. It was an amazing example of consistently surpassing the Customer expectations. That consistency really hit home with me as I developed my leadership skills as did your message. Thanks! I enjoyed.

    • Scott, good to hear from you and thanks for checking out my “article.” … I’m jealous that you had an opportunity to hear Stew Leonard’s son in person. Very cool! … I can see some of those positive traits in your leadership style and appreciation from the customer. Thanks for sharing!

      Take care,

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