Bill Marriott: What Eisenhower Taught me about Leadership.

VOLTAIRE THE FAMOUS FRENCH WRITER, HISTORIAN, and philosopher famously said, “Judge a man by his questions, rather than by his answers.”

If you are a leader in your organization, be it at any level- mid, senior, or C-level, just read this article till the end. You’ll have a very powerful leadership question that has the power to transform your leadership to the next level.

It was the year 1954, Bill Marriott was just 22 years young, straight out of college. He started serving as a junior officer in the US Navy supply corps. That very year the entire Marriott family decide to celebrate Christmas with friends, family members, and guests together at their farm in Virginia. So, all their friends and family members gathered together at the venue.

Bill also took Christmas leave to be with his family members. Once he reached their farm in Virginia, he came to know that there was a very special guest which was gracing the occasion. The special guests were then US President Dwight D Eisenhower and her wife.

A friend of Bill’s father was the secretary of Agriculture in Eisenhower’s cabinet and he was instrumental in getting the President to accept the invitation to be the guest of honor and grace the occasion.

The President was very fond of bird hunting, so the Marriott family has collected some Quails and birds to hunt if he wishes so. It was the 22nd of December 1954, and being wintertime, it was awfully cold that day. Chilly and cold winds were blowing and so the entire gathering of friends, family members and relatives were comfortably sitting within the four walls of their farm, chatting beside the fire palace. Bill’s father asked the President if he want to go out and shoot birds or want to stay indoors beside the fire.

The president just turned around and looked at Bill who was standing by the corner of the room almost shivering and asked him, “what do you think we should do, Bill?”

Bill was caught by surprise because here was the President of America, the supreme commanding officer asking the opinion of the junior-most officer.

Bill gathered his strength and said, “Mr. President, it is awful cold, let’s stay in by the fire.”

The President turned around and said, “Good idea, I go with what Bill said, we will stay indoors.”

Well, for everyone else this episode ended then and there itself, but for Bill, this episode got stuck in his memory, this experience lived with him forever. He paused, looked back, and then he realized why Dwight D Eisenhower has been such a successful Leader, first as a very successful General when it comes to World War II as a Commander, and now as the President of America.

He realized that this trait of Eisenhower of asking his juniors their opinions, listen to what they had to say, and even accept their viewpoint made him so popular. This what Bill felt separated Eisenhower from other leaders, made him stand apart.

Then and there, Bill Marriott decided that he is going to utilize this principle and use it in his Leadership journey. He is going to give it a permanent place in his leadership toolkit and his management practice. Believe me, he used it very well and led very effectively.

Under his strong and charismatic leadership, Marriott International transformed itself from just one hotel to what it is today, a leading hotel chain, a truly multinational Fortune 500 company.

Now according to Bill Marriott, this question, “What do you think” are the four most powerful words in the English language which has really helped him throughout his leadership journey.

He shares a very interesting incident in his book, “The Spirit To Serve.”

Many years ago, a group of Marriott executives was waiting in our boardroom to update me on a hotel project I was particularly excited about. Senior-level representatives from all the key functions were there: feasibility, finance, design, construction, operations, etc. The group apparently killed time by talking about what an absolutely terrible idea the project was.

A few minutes later, I walked in the door, clapped my hands together enthusiastically, and asked, “So, how’s my project looking?” Everybody responded, “Well, Bill, it’s looking good, really good.” Everybody except one fellow, a junior executive who had not opened his mouth.

Turning to him, I commented: “You haven’t said anything. What do you think?”

He proceeded to rattle off all the reasons why the project was a disaster in the making-the same reasons that everyone around the table had been airing just minutes before I came in.

I paused a moment and then replied: “You know, you’re absolutely right. Kill it.”

I walked out. Jaws dropped around the table and thus was the end of the project.”

This was an excerpt from his book, “The spirit to serve.”

Later on, Bill recalled what if I have not asked this person his opinion. The company would have gone ahead with the project and would have cost the company dearly.

John Maxwell in his book, “Great leaders ask great questions” shares some 11 powerful questions which he thinks every leader should ask his people.

One of the questions is “what do you think.”

According to Maxwell, this question is very powerful, which has the power to elevate your leadership to the next level.

Just stop, pause, think, and reflect!

A simple four-word open-ended question has such great power that can transform the way you lead.

In the 20th century, Leaders were supposed to have all the answers. A know-it-all mentality was considered an ideal leadership candidate, but thankfully not anymore.  The 21st century is a brain-based economy.

In a brain-based economy, it’s ok for leaders to not have all the answers, not know everything. In the 21st century, questions are the real answers. And if you have to develop one skill then develop this trait of asking the right questions.

This question- What do you think has many advantages and benefits. It is a powerful tool to engage and empower your people. It serves many purposes

  • When you ask this question to your people, it shows to them that you really want to hear their voice and understand their point of view. You really want to know what they feel, you really want to listen to what they have to say. It shows that you care for them. This gives them a sense of psychological safety.
  • Millennials, who are very soon going to form the majority of the workspace, just don’t want to work as an executor who is just executing what the boss has to say. They want to be a contributor, they want to contribute ideas, inputs, insights, and information. This contribution leads to involvement and this involvement leads to commitment. Is there any team leader who doesn’t want committed team players?
  • When you ask your people, this question you force your people to open their minds and offer you some information, some insights. And this information and insight are key when it comes to making the right decisions. A key trait of leadership is the right decision-making.
  • It invokes critical thinking. It forces your people to think and reflect. Knowingly or unknowingly, you turn your people into problem-solving mode. And who doesn’t want problem solvers in their team? Nobody wants problem creators, only problem solvers in their team.
  • If you don’t ask, you’ll never know what you don’t know.

So, this four-word question, “What do you think” is a powerful learning tool.

And leaders are life-long learners.

Now, if you’re a leader in your organization, just ask yourself: when was the last time you asked your people this question, “What do you think.”

If you cannot recall or if the answer is no, then nothing to worry about. Better late than never.

Just give this question a permanent place in your leadership toolkit and see your leadership blossom.

What do you think about this information? Do let me know in the comment section below!


Happy Questioning and Leading!


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