Hubris & Humble Pie: Bill Pollard, Former ServiceMaster CEO, Shares How Peter Drucker Taught Him to Swallow His Pride

Amber Johnson Values-Driven Leaders

Excerpts from Pollard’s speech at the CVDL’s Senior Executive Roundtable, Sept. 16, 2010. 
You are looking at a very imperfect leader as it relates to servant leadership. As you are successful, you begin thinking you have the answers. You know how to do things: I mean, after all, here is your track record of success. And as your responsibility expands, there are trappings of leadership that even further support this.
The story I will tell you involves an experience I had with [leadership pioneer and management consultant] Peter Drucker in Japan. We were going there to hold a management seminar. ServiceMaster had a very fast growing business there, working with a Japanese partner, and obviously I started thinking about selling as well as the management seminar. I said, “Boy,that would be a great opportunity to get potential customers there.” So we encouraged our partner to come, and to invite existing and perspective customers.
We arrived and began shaking hands, and I didn’t see our partner anywhere. The only customers I saw in the audience were the ones that our team from America had invited. Needless to say I was upset: here was an opportunity, totally blown.
That evening at dinner I told Peter I was really mad. Our partner had a great opportunity for new customers, and they weren’t there. I said, “You know, I think they’re just trying to show me. I had to make a decision about a month ago that we were not ready to bring one of our new service lines to Japan, and I think they’re mad about it. This is their way of showing me – by not showing up.”
I said I had plans tomorrow to get on the train and go down to Osaka, but I had just decided not to go. I said, “I’m going to get on a plane and go back to the States tomorrow. You know: tit for tat.”
We finished dinner and both went to our respective rooms. At 10:30 I got a call: “Bill, this is Peter. I want you to come up into my room. I want to talk to you some more about this.”
I said, “Peter, I’ve got my pajamas on.” He told me to put on my trousers and get up there. So dutifully I went to Drucker’s room. He had pulled a chair by the bed, and he said, “You sit on the bed. I’m going to sit on the chair so I can look at you right in the eye.”
And then he said, “You know what Bill? You’ve got to eat some humble pie. You’re suffering from the illness of hubris. It’s not about you; it’s about the people of ServiceMaster. What’s best for them? For you to get on a plane and go home tomorrow? Or for you to get on a train and go down to Osaka and resolve the issue? You’re responsible for that.”
He was right. And it was a great lesson for me to learn –it’s been a continuing lesson for me to learn. I was never over that lesson. But it gets to this whole issue that leadership is a responsibility. Know who you are, know what you believe, know why you believe it, know where you’re going and know why it’s important for people to follow. That’s your responsibility.
Bill Pollard is the chairman of Fairwyn Investment Company. For over 25 years he worked in leadership at The ServiceMaster Company, serving twice as its CEO. During his leadership the company was recognized by Fortune magazine as the #1 service company among the Fortune 500s. He is the author of The Soul of the Firm and other titles.
For more details on the Center for Values-Driven Leadership, visit our web site, www.cvdl.org.