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Swim against the tide to prevail

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

There’s nothing inherently wrong with playing it safe. You can let conventional wisdom guide every decision you make and wind up with a perfectly respectable career.

But going with the flow almost guarantees you will never leave a mark. You won’t become a standout, a leader who drives people to greatness even in grim times.

The next time you weigh the risks of swimming against the tide, consider the unconventional leadership of Robert Woodruff. He served as president of the Coca-Cola Company from 1923 to 1954.

By all accounts, Woodruff followed his own rules when managing people. He demanded results, period. Not known as a sensitive, “servant leader” boss, Woodruff set clear goals and workers knew they had to follow through.

Woodruff also operated with a streak of stubborn independence. He resisted groupthink at all costs.

As Donald Keough writes in The Ten Commandments for Business Failure, Woodruff responded with characteristic opportunism during the Great Depression. With bankruptcies spreading and the stock market still down in 1933, Woodruff did what almost no chief executive would dare: He increased Coke’s advertising budget to $4.3 million (“a staggering record sum for the time,” Keough notes).

His employees couldn’t help but embrace Woodruff’s sense of optimism. By launching Christmas ads with the now-famous drawing of a happy, hopeful Santa Claus, Woodruff helped lift his workers—and the nation’s—collective spirit.

Follow Woodruff’s example and brighten your employees’ outlook during this rocky economy. Invest in their growth rather than freeze spending on “nonessentials” such as training. Reward exceptional effort by giving gift cards so that your best workers can buy free gas or groceries. Create more cross-training opportunities to stimulate staffers who may feel restless.

Like Woodruff, reject the herd instinct. Just because most managers keep pushing people to do more in less time—for the same pay—doesn’t mean that’s a road map to success. Celebrating excellence and showing generosity in these lean times will help you retain winners and advance your career.

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