Rhino-Leaders: Why do these people excel?

By • on May 5, 2009

PETER DRUCKER SAID, “It is easy to look good in a boom.” In a recession, it’s easy for leaders to say, “Times are tough. Nobody’s doing well. We expect a downturn in sales.” But what if leaders cultivated the mind-set that they can make money and thrive in any economy?

Where can we find the real tenets of leadership that show us how to face any challenge and overcome it? Business leaders are starved for effective role models, primarily because we’ve been looking in all the wrong places—like Washington or Wall Street.

If you want to see leadership, visit the zoo and head to the rhinoceros—the greatest role model for leadership. Why the rhino? He’s sensitive to his environment and a great listener. Listening is a key in leadership. As Drucker noted, “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.” The rhino is thick-skinned, well-balanced (on his l

arge three-toed feet) and poised, despite his ungainly appearance. And like a future-focused leader, the rhino is hard-charging when necessary, and he knows when to rest. He’s aware of what other animals in the vicinity are doing, but he doesn’t tailor his behavior to match or accommodate theirs. Great leaders set the pace, and like rhinos, are strong enough to carry the weight of the world on their well armored shoulders.

The Rhino

To succeed today, you need to emulate rhinos. Leaders with a rhino-like mind-set never assume that the environment determines their success. They know they can attract and make money in any economy. In fact, strategically minded leaders with aggressive mentalities thrive during recessionary periods. Their competitors tend to fold when the economy sours, leaving the field wide open for rhino-leaders to charge.

Three Examples of Rhino-Leaders:

Who are some of our modern-day rhino-leaders? Let’s look at three.

Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple. Jobs launched the updated iPhone at a time when gas prices were soaring, the housing market was in a big slump, and the mood in the country could be described as “grim and grimmer.” Jobs could have said, “Let’s hold off. The economy’s bad, and it will never support a new, expensive high-end phone.” Jobs didn’t waver. Instead, he charged like a rhino, and it worked.

When Jobs launched the iPhone in 2007, people were lined up around the block at Apple Stores, those distinctive and attractive sales environments, waiting impatiently to get their hands on Apple’s newest toy. A year later, people are still waiting in line. In a press release sent just three days after the 2008 launch of the 3G, Jobs announced that Apple had already sold 1 million new models. Apple will likely sell 4.47 million phones in the fourth quarter this year.

Steve Jobs eschews traditional marketing approaches like focus groups and consumer studies. He has an uncanny ability to take the pulse of the marketplace, bringing out not just new products but new ways of shopping. First, he invents a category, like the iPhone, the iPod or iTunes, and then he turns everybody into people who either possess these things or wish they did.

That’s the rhino approach in action: take no prisoners, ignore doomsayers, and create products unique enough and attractive enough to turn them from “what’s that?” to “must have.” Like a rhino, Jobs tramples everything in his path that suggests defeat. And he gets what he wants most of the time.

Another amazing characteristic of the rhino is his speed—a full-grown rhino is six-feet tall and weighs 4,000 pounds, yet it can move at a speed of 35 miles an hour. Rhino-leaders revel in moving quickly and taking advantage of opportunities.

Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest. Southwest Airlines posted its 35th consecutive year of profitability, was the most punctual, lost the fewest bags, and had the fewest complaints. Why? Southwest has a rhino for a leader who communicates that while other airlines are cutting back on amenities and charging for services like checking bags, Southwest would offer more services, like Wi-Fi on its flights.

While the news media are creating negative marketing for Southwest’s competitors—writing stories on all the ways they are reducing services, cutting back flights and charging for services that used to be free—Kelly trumpets Southwest’s strategy of giving customers more. In an era of zero consumer loyalty and enormous information available to all, can you afford to give your customers less?

Tough times call for a tough role model, and no animal has a tougher skin than the rhino. Rhinos are sometimes called tanks because their skin appears to be divided into plates, creating the illusion that they are armorplated. If you’re going to survive and thrive in tough times, you must be just as thick-skinned as the rhino.

Norbert Reithofer, CEO of BMW. He is one thick-skinned rhino. Reithofer and BMW recently launched the 1 Series, a lower-end version, to appeal to younger, less-affluent buyers. When he began to hear criticism that the 1 Series was not a “pure” BMW, rather than bristle at the criticism, he created a marketing campaign via the Internet to let the world know that the 1 Series is every bit a BMW. For weeks, MSN.com and Yahoo.com advertised the 1 Series in dominant positions on their home pages. Go to YouTube and you’ll find video clips of the new cars. Other automakers have not embraced new media, which leaves them in a position to be trampled by the fast, thick-skinned, rhino-like Reithofer.

These three top leaders and companies emulate aspects of the rhino: they communicate their message boldly; they offer speed and more services instead of cutting back; and they take a tough-skinned approach to criticism and going after prospects. The rhino always stays on message and is never daunted by changing circumstances. There’s always one rhino in every industry. Make sure it’s you!

Christian D. Warren is a leadership consultant and author of Running with the Rhinos (Cirrus) and CEO of CDW Companies. Visit www.cdwcompanies.com.

ACTION: Start charging like a rhino.


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