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William C. Taylor

William C. Taylor

Founding editor of Fast Company and co-author of Mavericks at Work, William C. Taylor is working on his next book, Practically Radical. Follow him on Twitter @practicallyrad

Need a hero? Check out DaVita's Kent Thiry

Q: Tony Hayward, once credited for BP's "green" turnaround, is forced to resign in disgrace. Michael Dell, the revolutionary high-tech entrepreneur, is sanctioned for misleading investors. Wall Street titans, once lionized, are now reviled. Where have all the CEO heroes gone?

As we try to make sense of the sorry state of American business leadership, the question isn't, Where have the corporate heroes gone? The real question is, How do we know a corporate hero when we see one?

I have spent more than 20 years--first as a young editor at Harvard Business Review, then as a cofounder and founding editor of Fast Company, and now as someone who writes books and interacts with business audiences around the world--studying organizations and leaders that are setting the idea agenda for business. I'm not looking for "heroes" per se, but for role models from which the rest of us can learn. And I'm always amazed by the fact that the companies and leaders I most admire are rarely the ones that show up on the front pages of the business section or on the covers of business magazines.

Here's why: So much of the way so many of us think about business remains rooted in the logic of power. How big has a company become under its hard-charging CEO? How much wealth have its shareholders amassed as a result of strategic calculations made in the corner office? But as my friend and publishing-industry legend Harriet Rubin likes to say, "Freedom is actually a bigger game than power. Power is about what you control. Freedom is about what you unleash." In other words, the real heroes of business are leaders who are more concerned about unleashing freedom than amassing power--about creating economic value based on the values they espouse and that their colleagues live and work by every day.

One heroic case in point: The remarkable turnaround of a company called DaVita, the largest provider of kidney-dialysis services in the United States, under the leadership of CEO Kent Thiry. At one level, this is a classic business comeback. CEO Thiry took over in October 1999, when DaVita was on the verge of bankruptcy and its share price had sunk to $2. Today, the company is growing fast, generating big profits, and has a share price of around $60.

But the real story isn't about numbers, it's about people--its 35,000 employees and its 125,000 patients. The first thing the new CEO did was to send the message, "We are going to flip the ends and the means. We are a community first and a company second. If we figure out how to treat the patients right, and treat each other right, the business side of things will take care of itself."

And that's precisely what happened. This is an organization that wears its values on its sleeve--that is more interested in creating "ripples of citizen leadership" than an army of cut-throat dealmakers. I've spent hours in various DaVita dialysis clinics, and it's hard to describe the level of personal identification and emotional engagement between staffers and patients.

"We are different on purpose," Thiry explains. "We want people to feel and behave like citizens of a village, the DaVita Village, and to embrace the rights and responsibilities that come with citizenship. The goal isn't financial performance. The goal is for people to be part of something they are proud of, a sustainable community that becomes an example to others. That means giving people a voice, giving them a vote, giving them skills, not just to be better managers and business leaders, but better people and citizen leaders."

This is not the kind of language that gets lionized by the business press--even if DaVita's market cap has increased from $200 million to some $6 billion over the last decade. It's too "soft," too "human," not "tough enough" for the tough times in which we live and work. But to me, this is what true business heroes sound like--and what meaningful business success looks like.

How do we know a business hero when we see one? When we see CEOs who understand the powerful connection between human values and economic value. When those CEOs build organizations in which everyone has a voice. And when those organizations don't just outcompete their rivals, but redefine the sense of what's possible--what really matters--in their fields. With those metrics in mind, there are plenty of corporate heroes out there--if you know what you're looking for.

By William C. Taylor

 |  July 26, 2010; 2:28 PM ET
Category:  Corporate leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: A hero of government service | Next: Best heroes are the quietest


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Why are you praising this ego maniac? Sure he "fixed" Davita, but only at the expense of their patients and used the government to succeed. Ask him how many patients his company has killed due to "minor mistakes". Ask him why he has done nothing to stop his clinics from "firing" patients and letting them die. Ask him these questions then write a follow up story.

Posted by: Alive | August 1, 2010 5:59 PM
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Excellant story! Your right; these guys don't end up on the cover of business magazines. Also, stories like yours donit make the headlines. I came accross your story by accident.

Posted by: JOOG | July 27, 2010 9:43 AM
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