[Blog] Tough Calls and Tough Love

blog May 11, 2022


by Tony McLellan

           Through a business and nonprofit career spanning more than 50 years and four continents, I have learned that inspiring others to follow your lead demands tough calls and tough love. It means encouraging people to make sacrifices in order to achieve their goals. Jesus’ call to his disciples serves as the ultimate example: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

            The best way to generate commitment from others is not to rely on your power or authority, but to inspire them. It begins with courage, the kind displayed by Luz Long at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Jesse Owens—the Black athlete who was born in Alabama, near where we lived in Atlanta—seemed sure to win the long jump. Just the year before, he had set the world record that would stand for 25 years.

            Yet he was nervous. He was aware of the tension created by his presence at The Games, and he knew the Nazis’ desire to prove Aryan “superiority.” The pressure was overwhelming, and on his first jump Owens inadvertently leapt from some inches beyond the takeoff board. Rattled, he overshot on the second attempt, too. He was only one foul away from being eliminated.

            At this point, a tall German athlete approached Owens and introduced himself as Luz Long. The white model of Nazi manhood and the Black son of a sharecropper chatted in view of the entire stadium. What could they be talking about?

            Since the qualifying distance was well short of Owens’ record, Long suggested making a mark several centimeters before the take-off board and jumping from there, just to play it safe.  

            Owens qualified easily. In the finals, he set an Olympic record and earned the second of four gold medals during the 1936 Olympics. The first person to congratulate Owens was Luz Long—in full view of Adolf Hitler.

            Owens never saw Long again, for Long was killed in World War II. “You could melt down all the medals and cups I have,” Owens later wrote, “and they wouldn’t be plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long.” Long’s courage in the face of his Fuhrer was extraordinary, and Jesse Owens never forgot it.


A shared passion

            Second, all great leaders have noble and incorruptible character. Leaders must act with honesty, integrity, decency and responsibility at all times—irrespective of who may be watching.

            Third, successful leaders must also have constancy or perseverance. Think for a moment about how a simple Black preacher from a small southern church could attract 250,000 people to the National Monument in Washington, DC on a summer’s day in 1963. No invitations were sent. There was no internet site. Yet this enormous crowd arrived at precisely the right time on the right day.

            Did these people come because Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. used power and authority to command that they be there? No. They came because they believed what he believed. They came because they wanted to follow him—not because of his power or authority, but because they believed what he believed. They wanted to follow him for their own sake, for King’s passion had become their passion.

            In one of the greatest orations of all time, King didn’t outline a plan, but a dream. That is what leaders need to convey to their followers: their dreams; their aspirations; their hopes for them. I have learned that effective leaders really believe in their cause and are able to convey those beliefs to others. We must not command so much as we convict.

            Great leaders are also great communicators. They know how to connect with their followers and instill into them a belief in their cause. And they do this by communicating with their followers’ spirits.


A shared vision

            There are few in my life experience who know more about leading men than Jim Wallace, a former commander of Australia’s renowned SAS (Special Air Services) Regiment. It was he who taught me the three keys to convicting a person’s spirit.

            First, we must communicate through the eyes. We must sit down with our people, and share with them our vision for them, telling them what we expect from them. We cannot do this by email; we cannot do this by letter; we cannot do this over the telephone. Some refer to it as MBWA, or management by wandering around. We need to sit on their desk, look them in the eyes and share with them our vision for them and our organization.

            Second, we, ourselves, must be committed. Passion is critical, and it—or the absence of it—will be spotted at once by any follower. We must commit to our cause with every fiber of our being. As someone once said, great leaders leave their footprints in their areas of passion.

            Third, we must love our followers, and be prepared to sacrifice ourselves for them.

            During World War II, a company of Australian soldiers entered a swamp at Buna, to attack the Japanese there. One of them, Corporal Connell, was badly wounded. His men all rushed to recover him, but he waved them back. “Down!” he ordered, but they were insistent and kept moving forward to save him. Realizing that his troops were putting themselves in danger in an attempt to save him, Corporal Connell stood up and bravely walked straight toward the machine gun.

            His men never forgot that, as their leader, he had told them he loved them.


A shared push

            As we all know, in periods when there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress only occurs when leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.

            The world is crying out for great leaders; for statesmen instead of politicians; for men and women who have the faith, the belief and the courage to change things for the better. And whether we lead or follow, we must all give a tiny push.

            Christ apart, no leader who has walked this earth has ever come close to perfection. What distinguishes them is not their human failings, but the courage to strive to do what they know is right whatever the personal cost.

            While participatory decision-making may be used in certain circumstances, it is also critical to know where the buck stops in your organization. As a leader, it is important to be aware of the extent of your authority and to be ready always to exercise it.

            In this regard, I have had the experience of having to terminate the services of very senior people. It is never pleasant, but I always try to remember the advice of Jim Slater, the former chairman of the conglomerate, Slater Walker: When faced with termination, he said, one needs to be “ruthless in the decision and considerate in the execution.” Warren Buffett offers similar advice: “Be fair, be swift, be decisive—and be prepared to fire people.”

            This advice proved sound, and I often thought of it when I had the unpleasant task of letting go a senior employee. One must always be prepared to make the ruthless decision—unpleasant as it may be—and not delay it. Indeed, in my experience, when you sit down with the employee, they often know in their heart long before you have the conversation that they are not fitting in or not performing.

            Indeed, on one occasion, the employee was relieved that he no longer needed to be concerned about his inadequacies and that he could now get on with the rest of his life.

            Finally, as a leader, it is important to understand not only when to use power but when to give it up. Many leaders find this difficult. The very thing that inspires them to assume control can create a blind spot, making it hard for them to see when they are no longer needed. It has happened to me in my own career, and there are many examples of politicians and others who failed to recognize that their time was over.


Adapted from A Glorious Ride: From Jumble Plains to Eternity with Nick Cater (Wilkinson Publishing)