Taking care

When he was president of Oberlin College, Robert W. Fuller had a superstar and aproblem.

The superstar was a baseballplayer who was hitting .550 on the college’s team. The problemwas that the kid wouldn’t cuthis hair, and the veteran coachwanted everyone’s locks incheck. The 1950s were wayover, and Fuller knew the rulehad to change, so he went tothe coach to figure out how tochange it without making anyone look bad.

“The coach said, ‘My authority will be undercut if I reversemyself, but if you’re willing toorder me to change the rule,then we’ll change it, and I’ll takerefuge in the fact that the president made me do it’ — but hehad suggested it himself,”Fuller says.

Today, Fuller — who coauthored “Dignity for All: How to Create a World WithoutRankism” with Pamela A.Gerloff — focuses on lessonssuch as that one and how aleader can fix problems by usingrank without abusing power.

Smart Business spoke withFuller about how to talk toleaders who abuse power andwhy hierarchies are OK butrankism isn’t.

Create a hierarchy without rankism. Rank differences are not theproblem; we are not equal inour abilities, in our experienceand in our judgment. We’rewildly unequal, and we should-n’t even think we’re going tocreate a level for everybodyand have everybody at thesame rank.

Egalitarianism was tried on amassive scale in communistsocieties, and it was a flop.Abusive rank is the problem.To eliminate rankism, we don’teliminate rank; we try to makereally sure that there is mutualrespect both upward anddownward — especially downward, where it’s a choice.

Upward, there’s no choice; ifyou’re not respectful to yourboss, you’re very apt to loseyour job. But what we’re discovering now in business, andevery walk of life, is thatrespect downward createsesprit de corps, energy, healthand happiness, and it creates amuch more robust, productiveand creative work force.

Great leaders are ones whodo two things: They have agreat vision for their company,and they’re humble — theytreat everyone with respect.And more than that, the CEOcan be a nice fellow, but if hecountenances rankism at all,he’s not doing his job. Greatcompanies have CEOs whodemand all their subordinatestreat their subordinates withdignity. So there’s a surveil-lance job that’s needed.

I remember discovering thisat Oberlin, that it wasn’tenough that I be decent to myvice presidents and provostsand so on. It was importantthat they did the same thing totheir subordinates, and thatmakes for a place that canreally go places because the sabotage that disgruntledemployees can wreak upon acompany is just beyond comprehension.

It ranges from stealing paperclips and pens, all the way upto whispering to customersthat the company is actuallydysfunctional and that theproduct is no good.