Alan Deutschman: An interview by Bob Morris

Alan Deutschman

Deutschman is the author of the new book Walk the Walk: The #1 Rule for Real Leaders, and one of America’s leading writers on change, leadership, and innovation. His earlier groundbreaking book, Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life, debunks various myths and misconceptions about this crucial topic and reveals the surprising truths about what actually inspires and motivates real change. In a 21-year career as a business journalist, Deutschman has been the Silicon Valley correspondent for Fortune, a senior writer at GQ where he wrote the “Profit Motive” column, and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair where he has co-authored the “New Establishment” power list for the past decade. Most recently, he was a senior writer for Fast Company. Deutschman has interviewed and profiled many of the most influential and innovative figures in global business, including Apple’s Steve Jobs, Microsoft’s Bill Gates,’s Jeff Bezos, Google’s Sergey Brin, and Virgin’s Richard Branson, and he has studied the successful turnarounds and change efforts at companies such as Apple, IBM, and Yahoo. In addition to Change or Die, his other published books include The Second Coming of Steve Jobs and A Tale of Two Valleys: Wine, Wealth, and the Battle for the Good Life in Napa and Sonoma.

Morris: Before focusing on specific books, a few general questions. First, over the years, you have interviewed a number of high-performance CEOs. However different they may be in most other respects, what do all of them share in common?

Deutschman: The best corporate leaders have exceptional focus. They’re always acting to highlight, indeed exemplify the one or two qualities or strengths that are overwhelmingly important to their organizations—what I call “The Rule of One of Two.” Also, they have tremendous persistence, tenacity, resilience, and endurance.

Morris: In your opinion, why do most change initiatives fail?

Deutschman: Change efforts fail because the people who are trying to lead the initiatives rely on what I call the “Three Fs”: facts, fear, and force. First, they assume that people are “rational” and that they’ll change if given the facts—if they simply provided with accurate information about the situation. Unfortunately, that’s not how things usually work. People go into “denial”—they avoid thinking about the problem, or they deny that it’s a problem. So the change leaders then say to themselves, “Well, if people aren’t rational, then maybe they’re emotional, so let’s appeal to their emotional side, and the strongest emotion is fear. So let’s try to scare them into changing.” But fear is blocked by denial as well. Finally, then, the leaders stop trying to reason with their people at all and fall back on the authority of their position, which I call “force.” They say “Do it because I’m the boss and I said so. End of discussion” And sure enough people make a big show of “change” for a short time but then they revert to their old entrenched behavior.

Morris: According to recent Gallup research, only 29% of the U.S. workforce is positively engaged (i.e. loyal, enthusiastic, and productive) whereas 55% is passively disengaged. That is, they are going through the motions, doing only what they must, “mailing it in,” coasting, etc. As for the other 16%, they are “actively disengaged” in that they are doing whatever they can to undermine their employer’s efforts to succeed. What do you make of these statistics?

Deutschman: That sounds quite plausible to me. Of course, it varies a lot from company to company depending on whether or not there’s good leadership.

Morris: Looking back (let’s say) 12-15 years, what in your opinion has been the single most significant change in the U.S. workplace?

Deutschman: The mobile Internet. Now that so many people are reachable nearly all the time on handheld devices wherever they might be, managers and customers and clients have come to expect immediate access and attention, to be given answers very quickly, and that has greatly accelerated the pace and the pressures of the working life.

Morris: Now please focus on Change or Die. In it, you identify “the three keys to change at work and in life.” For those who have not as yet read the book, what are these “keys” and how can they be used most effectively?

Deutschman: The three keys to change are what I call the “Three Rs” for “relate, repeat, and reframe.” “Relate” means that you form a new emotional relationship with a person or community that inspires and sustains hope. “Repeat” means that this new relationship helps you learn, practice, and master the new habits and skills that you’ll need. And “reframe” means that the new relationship helps you learn new ways of thinking about your situation and your life.

Morris: In your opinion, is it possible to balance what is most important in one’s personal life with what is most important in one’s career?

Deutschman: Yes, I do. And the key is exactly the words that you used: “most important.” Being a leader, whether you’re the CEO leading a huge company or the head of a team with a handful of members, means focusing on the key issues and tasks, not micromanaging. Real leaders have a better chance of making it to their kids’ soccer games.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Walk the Walk. For those who have not as yet read this book, you assert that a “real” leader is someone whose values and behavior are wholly consistent with what she or he affirms. You cite several exemplars, including Steve Jobs, Herb Kelleher, Martin Luther King, Jr., Wendy Kopp, Ray Kroc, Nelson Mandela, Fred Smith, and Thomas Watson Sr. Which of them, in your opinion, best exemplifies “real” leadership? How so?

Deutschman: Well, everyone who’s praised in Walk the Walk is a superb leader. The bar is set pretty high for inclusion in the book. Obviously, though, some of these leaders pursued higher stakes and confronted greater obstacles than did others. While it’s a worthy goal to try to create a national chain of clean, inexpensive fast-food restaurants, for example, that’s obviously not something that you can compare with struggling for the rights for an oppressed people.

Morris: Jean Lipman-Blumen and Roy Lubit have much of value to say about “toxic” people, especially those in leadership positions. In your book, you are very critical of Mark Fields, Al Gore, Laura Turner Seydel, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Do you consider them to be “toxic”?

Deutschman: No, I don’t consider Fields, Gore, Seydel, or Schwarzenegger to be “toxic.” I think that they all believed fervently in the changes that they advocated. The big problem is that they all had serious blind spots about how their own behavior had to set a compelling example for other people to follow.

Morris: If you were hosting a fantasy dinner and could invite any real leaders throughout history, who would be on your list? Why?

Deutschman: Julia Child and Alice Waters, who led the culinary revolution in America, because that would ensure that the dinner would be utterly delicious and that we would all delight in a great meal as well as each other’s company.  (I’m a “foodie,” obviously!) So long as Child and Waters were in charge of the food and wine, I would also invite Eleanor Roosevelt. She served lousy food at the White House, much to FDR’s chagrin, but she was an amazing leader who showed American women that they could have their own strong voices. When it comes to men, I would like to have a few drinks with Herb Kelleher from Southwest Airlines. By all accounts he knew how to have quite a good time!

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