Dee Hock passed away July 16, 2022. He was 93.
I work in the domain of leading and leaders. I have three people I deeply admire in this arena: Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Dee Hock. Of the three, Hock is by far the least known.
He tells his story in his book, Birth of the Chaordic Age. I believe it to be a must read book for anyone who chooses to lead or who seeks to understand the deep challenges that come from using one’s self to lead.
A brief history of Hock:
He is perhaps the most invisible successful leader of a global organization in the last 50 years. Beginning in the mid 1960’s, at San Francisco based Bank of America, Hock managed a division of the bank called BankAmericard. This division’s function was to issue a new service and product called the credit card.
BankAmericard was the precursor to the Visa credit card. Since 1970, Visa has grown 10,000+% and operates in some 200 countries. By 1996, Visa’s annual sales volume passed $1 trillion dollars. Dee Hock ran the company until he retired in 1984, and then he dropped out of sight for the next six years while Visa never missed a beat.
Hock’s story of how to lead a company confounds many today, in spite of what he was able to build at Visa. Start by looking at his approach to leadership:
“Here is the very heart and soul of the matter. If you look to lead, invest at least 40% of your time managing yourself — your ethics, character, principles, purpose, motivation, and conduct. Invest at least 30% managing those with authority over you, and 15% managing your peers. Use the remainder to induce those you “work for” to understand and practice the theory. I use the terms “work for” advisedly, for if you don’t understand that you should be working for your mislabeled “subordinates,” you haven’t understood anything. Lead yourself, lead your superiors, lead your peers, and free your people to do the same. All else is trivia”.
This leadership definition turns most people who lead, inside out, just as Hock turns the focus of time and energy needed to lead upside down. He stresses the importance of knowing one’s self above all else. To do this work and spend 40% of one’s leadership focus on this demands the willingness to be reflective; to look inside, to explore feelings and history and to recognize pain takes effort.
This reflection is not for the purpose of fixing something. It is for the purpose of understanding “self”. Hock makes many references to his failures to lead effectively long after Visa had been a success. In writing his book and reflecting on his leadership actions he says,
“The methods and beliefs of mechanistic command and control I had been taught, had been too thoughtlessly accepted, and more skillfully practiced than I then realized or even now care to admit. It would take someone of much greater character, clearer perception, and more generous disposition than mine to be immersed in a world in which such concepts are dominant and remain free of taint.”
Here is a man of great accomplishment suggesting on reflection that he might still not have what it takes to do what he has already done. We can add humility to Hock’s leadership repertoire.
If Hock has contrarian thoughts about how to focus leadership time, consider what he thought about command and control, the prevailing leadership model of that time:
“Command-and-control organizations were not only archaic and increasingly irrelevant. They were becoming a public menace, antithetical to the human spirit and destructive of the biosphere. I was convinced we were on the brink of an epidemic of institutional failure.”
These are strong words: “public menace”, “harmful to the human spirit and destructive to the biosphere”.
Hock held these beliefs back in the 1960’s when the man in the gray suit characterized organizations. Hock promised himself that if he ever had the chance to run a company, he’d do it differently. Soon after, he was heading up BankAmericard that was on the way to becoming Visa.
In Hock’s book Birth of the Chaordic Age, he says, “True leaders are those who epitomize the general sense of the community – who symbolize, legitimize, and strengthen behavior in accordance with the sense of community. The true leader’s behavior is induced by the behavior of every individual who chooses where they will be led”.
It appears to me that Hock is putting the pressure on leaders to walk their talk and be the example of what they ask of others while acknowledging the reality that those followers have the final say and choice to follow.
But again he’s not sure he did as he preached: “What is now clear is that I lacked perception, ability, and courage to lead in the direction of natural inclination, rather than acquired behavior.”
“At critical points of difficulty and stress, my impatience would rise, the old ways would overpower inclination, and I would seize control of a project, always with the excuse of dire necessity and, later, with much regret. Each such act put the lie to what I believed and tried to persuade others to accept. All too often, I was simply unable to be the change I wanted to see”.
Hock’s ownership of his humanity and leadership frailty is sometimes uncomfortable to read, but he is offering both sides of the leadership equation; the light and the dark.
What drew me to Hock and his story is this dichotomy. Here is a man who was leading a global organization by developing an entirely new industry, which was generating monumental success, and, yet, when he left Visa, he was discouraged because he didn’t believe anyone cared about how it was all achieved.
For all of Visa’s organizational success, Hock insisted it had implemented only 25% of his vision. He had gotten tired of beating his head against the wall; a wall that he helped build.
At this point in the Hock story, we are visited by the proposition that leadership is dangerous work and that leaders who lead and who hold the stance that Hock was advocating, run the risk of being “killed off”. This premise is well outlined by Ron Heifetz.
Hock’s exit from Visa appears to be a case study for this proposition. His strategy was to “disappear” and tend to his farm in Utah. But he was bothered by the thought that he was onto something about building and leading organizations that positively impact the biosphere and serve as healthy places for people to build a career. What he was really bothered by was that he would have to face his grandchildren and admit that he had not given all he had to offer in pursuit of this vision.
Dee Hock returned to consult and advise organizations on the difficult challenge of building meaningful places to work. His starting point for all his work is the same as it was at Visa. Define a purpose and a set of principles for the organization that all can believe in, “or go home”. This definition of purpose and principles, he warns, will be some of the most difficult work an organization will do, and that it will take much longer than people want it to take. Hock honors the difficult work by naming it. He calls it “Chaordic” and defines it as, “the behavior of any self-governing organism, organization or system which harmoniously blends characteristics of order and chaos”.
So what to make of the Hock legacy? For me, it begins with his practice of self-reflection. He seems to be guided by asking himself, “What is my contribution to the mess I am trying to resolve?”
Dee Hock reminds me of the potency of candor and courage. I have learned the critical need for stubbornness to stand for a future I believe in. I needed Hock’s kick in my backside to keep inclusion of others and their different points of view alive while facilitating dialogue until it was time to make a decision. Finally he modeled owning the decision making moment and accepted all responsibility for the outcome if it went poorly.
Mostly, my high regard for Dee Hock is because of his willingness to go first and expose himself to the people he was leading while working to “keep at bay the four beasts that inevitably devour their keeper – Ego, Envy, Avarice, and Ambition”. All evidence about Hock is consistent; he is respected, honest, courageous and service-oriented. That seems a great legacy and a strong role model.
I cannot help but think that it did not end well for Hock in the corporate arena. He left discouraged. So discouraged that he “hid out” for three years before he had the motivation to share his experiences and teach others. He serves as an example of breaking from the command style of leading to achieve meaningful results.
Dee Hock’s body of work serves as a reminder that choosing to lead can get you hurt. It can even get you “killed off”.
I want to believe that someplace in “the other world” Dee Hock has regular cafe gatherings with Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel. Oh, the stories they can tell.