Lessons in Leadership from Ross Perot
The most important lessons of leadership came from the man behind the larger-than-life personality.
In 2003, I sold a company to Perot Systems, the large IT services firm started by Ross Perot, where I then worked for the next four years. Although at that time Perot was chairman and eventually became chair emeritus, his personal offices were on the same Plano, Texas, campus as the firm and you’d find him regularly in the cafeteria. He was brazen, direct, charismatic, and utterly disarming. But what I remember most are none of the above.
Oddly, my first recollection of Perot’s headquarters is an enormous original Norman Rockwell painting of Lincoln that stood seven feet tall in the reception area. It was an imposing statuesque painting that was in stark contrast to Perot, who stood at 5’6″ and weighed in at just 144 pounds.
Perot passed away in July at the age of 89. He’s being remembered by many for his pioneering work at EDS, disrupting GM when he became a board member as part of its acquisition of EDS, his audacious commando raid and rescue of EDS employees who had been held hostage in Iran, and later his runs for the presidency–the latter being the only time that a presidential candidate had run infomercials as part of his campaign. I should add, the ratings for those infomercials were better than most prime-time network broadcasts. Sixty-five million of his own money got him 20 percent of the popular vote. Not enough to win the White House but more than enough to cement his place in the public psyche.
“Perot himself was fond of reminding people that if any associate’s child needed medical attention at 2 a.m. they should be treated just like he’d want his own child treated.”
While I already knew Perot from all of this and his Texas brash call-it-like-it-is media personality, it wasn’t until I worked at Perot Systems, the company he founded after selling EDS and leaving GM, that I got to know the man behind the larger-than-life personality he projected and which the media latched onto.
Perot exuded energy and charisma unlike anyone I’ve ever met. It didn’t matter if you caught him going up a few floors in an elevator, in the company cafeteria, or walking the halls at Perot’s headquarters, he was always on.
Memorabilia of his many accomplishments lined the halls of the Plano campus, from cosmonaut suits, to Gilbert Stuart paintings of George Washington, to Remington bronzes, to mural-size original Norman Rockwells, to the pop-up pie and bar charts he used during his paid presidential broadcasts. The hallways looked like a cross between the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, MOMA, and the presidential library Perot never had.
Despite the halo of success that surrounded the man, what I recall most was the way Perot cared about the people who worked for him. His loyalty was fierce. At the end of every executive team conference call, it was customary for Perot’s son Ross Jr., who was CEO when I first came on board, to ask about the well-being and the health of all the families represented by each of his direct reports. It wasn’t a formality. Perot himself was fond of reminding people that if any associate’s child needed medical attention at 2 a.m. they should be treated just like he’d want his own child treated.
On weekends, the company would conduct drills in which every executive and manager had to account for the whereabouts of all of their direct reports. You’d get a call and an email that required you to respond within hours no matter where you were or what you were doing.
Until then, I don’t think I’d ever really understood the power of an organization to make its people feel safe and cared for. The result was an equally enormous debt of loyalty from Perot associates back to the company.
“It doesn’t take much to make sure that the people we work with understand that the organization they work for will also work to look out for them.”
Above all, Perot was dedicated to the men and women who serve in the armed forces. His devotion to them was extraordinary. Lining the halls of Perot’s headquarters were countless letters from families and veterans grateful for his help. He had welcome-home packages delivered to everyone who came home from serving abroad. One of the items in the package was a DVD of Perot thanking each of them for their service. I wondered if they would get the same from the actual commander in chief.
He didn’t boast about any of it. He didn’t have the need to. Yet one story has always stuck with me.
The wife of a soldier who was in a hospital near the theater where he had been mortally wounded with an irreparable head injury contacted Ross to ask if he would pay for her plane fare to fly to the Middle East. She’d been told that her husband could not be moved and had only days to live. So she wanted to be with him before he passed, but she just didn’t have the money.
Perot would have nothing to do with it. Instead, he contacted one of the foremost head and brain trauma teams in the U.S., chartered a plane, and flew them all to the soldier’s hospital along with whatever equipment they needed to operate. Needless to say, he survived.
That is as close to being a superhero as any mortal can possibly get. It’s what I’ll remember best: the generosity of spirit, caring, and kindness with which he treated those who needed him most.
Clearly, few of us have the resources to pull anything remotely close to that off. But what we each have is the ability to be grateful stewards of the trust that others put in us as leaders. It doesn’t take much to make sure that the people we work with understand that the organization they work for will also work to look out for them. Yes, it’s good business, but, much more important, it’s good leadership.
What Perot understood full well is that an organization is far more than a workplace. It is where people find meaning, purpose, and identity. It’s a place that gives them the opportunity to be part of something much larger than themselves.
Like that larger-than-life portrait of Lincoln, Perot gave you something larger than life to be part of, to look up to, and to aspire to.
This article was originally published on Inc.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
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Tom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.
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