THE JOURNAL OF LEADERSHIP APPLICATIONS
Vol. 4, No. 4
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102
Commando Leaders are Committed
“Extraordinary achievements demand extraordinary leaders.“
© 2006 William A. Cohen, PhD
I never tired of telling the story of how my good friend, Joe Cossman, who learned his commando leadership techniques as a combat engineer in Europe during World War II, got started in his career as a worldwide entrepreneur. So, if you heard the story from me before . . . well, frankly listen up because there is a very important lesson here if you want to be a commando leader because Joe Cossman was:
“The $350 a Week Man Who Got Everyone To Help Him Make $1,800,000”
You may think that military leaders have the authority of law to enforce there orders. “Leading in civilian life is a lot different,” you may think. “An executive in a company doesn’t have that kind of authority.” Well, let’s look at a situation where a leader has a lot less authority than even the most junior leader in civilian life because there is a leadership situation that is even more challenging. That is when the leader has no authority at all. In fact, he or she doesn’t even have a formal organization.
Joe and I didn’t meet until 1982, He was already a multi-millionaire many times over. I called to ask if he would look at a book I had written to possibly recommend it. He agreed to look at the manuscript and he did in fact give me a strong recommendation. Because he lived only about two hours from where I live, we met face-to-face and soon became fast friends. One day he told me the story of how he started out. It is an amazing story, with many leadership lessons, especially how to lead successfully when the leader has no authority at all.
As I told you earlier, Joe had served in the Combat Engineers in Europe during World War II. After the war, and with no formal education past high school, he managed to get a job working for an import company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His pay was $350 a week. Actually, it was a lot less, but I want to tell you this story in terms of today’s dollars so you’ll understand the magnitude of Joe’s accomplishment in leading through his demonstration of uncommon commitment. On his small pay check, Joe supported himself, his wife, and a baby daughter.
Joe was committed to his vision of success. He showed this uncommon commitment by his actions: “I bought an old typewriter, and used my kitchen table as an office every evening after supper. Every night I studied the newspaper, looking for scarce commodities that were available here in America, but scarce in Europe or Asia. Then, I offered these products through the mail to prospects overseas.”
He worked for a year stretching pennies, skipping meals, and working part time on his kitchen table. “I was beginning to get discouraged,” he said. But Joe persisted. Remember, he was committed. “Then, one day I saw a small classified ad in the New York Times. It was for laundry soap, which was then in short supply. “As I had several times before, I answered the ad, got samples, and sent them to several overseas contacts. In the past this had gone nowhere. This time things were different. Almost by return mail, I got an order with a letter of credit for $1,800,000!”
The letter of credit said that a New York bank would pay him $1,800,000 as soon as he gave them bills of lading. Again, I put the amounts in today’s dollars. Letters of credit are documents showing the product on a ship bound for the buyer. There was also a deadline. The bills of lading had to be presented to his bank within thirty days, or the letter of credit would be worthless.
Showing Uncommon Commitment Gets an Impossible Leave of Absence
Cossman went to see his boss and asked for a leave of absence. His boss told Joe that this just wasn’t possible because this was their busiest season. Recalled Joe, “I didn’t want to quit my $350 a week job. But, somebody had to make a trip to New York to close the deal. I asked almost everyone I knew in Pittsburgh to go for me. I even offered them half of the profits. They all said ‘no.’”
After asking everyone he knew, Joe went to his boss again. He showed uncommon commitment. “You can fire me if you want, but I must have a leave of absence,” said Joe. His boss saw his commitment. He wasn’t bluffing. Joe was a good worker. He didn’t want to lose him. This time, his boss said “yes.” Joe withdrew his life savings from the bank. It was less than $2500 in today’s dollars. Then, he left for New York.
Uncommon Commitment Wins Over Telephone Operators During a Strike
“When I got to New York, I telephoned the man who ran the ad. The man didn’t own a single bar of soap! He had put the ad in the paper on speculation and sent samples he had bought in a store.” But, in spite of this setback, Joe was still committed and he showed it. He didn’t stop to ask himself “why does everything happen to me? Or anything like that. Instead, he immediately went to the library and got names and addresses of every soap manufacturer in the United States from the Thomas Register of Manufacturers. The next day he locked himself in his hotel room.
There was a telephone strike, so it took fifteen minutes before he finally got an operator. The operators were all managers because the usual operators were on strike. He told the operator his story. Cossman had page after page of telephone numbers to call. His uncommon commitment persuaded the operator to help him. He promised to keep Joe on the line until he made all his calls.
After fifty calls it was evening even on the west coast and Joe had to quit. He was very tired and his voice was hoarse. He thanked the operator and fell into the hotel bed exhausted. “When the sun came up, I began again. I had to tell my story all over again to the new operator. She also stayed with me to help me make my calls.” When a leader is really committed, followers rarely quit. New “followers” are motivated to help.
At noon, he finally hit pay dirt. He found a company in Alabama that had laundry soap. Joe had a telephone bill of $8100, but he had located the product.
“I was so excited, I told them I would fly to Alabama that afternoon. They told me to save my money. Their corporate offices were only a few blocks away in Rockefeller Center.”
Uncommon Commitment Convinces Two Company Presidents
Joe ran all the way. Before long he was telling the story to the president of the soap company. He completed the deal with no cash, but with his inexperience, he made a big mistake. Joe took delivery of the soap in Alabama. So, he had to find a way of getting the soap to New York.
“I began pounding the pavements of New York. I looked for someone that would loan me thirty trucks and drivers on credit. It took two days. I finally found a president of a trucking company willing to take his trucks to Alabama even though I had no money to pay in advance.”
Joe no longer had a cent to his name. During the trip he borrowed money for meals from the truck drivers. They finally arrived in Alabama and loaded 1000 cases of soap on the trucks. They immediately turned around and headed back to New York. But, time was running out. Soon he would have to lead another company president by showing uncommon commitment.
Continuing Against all Obstacles Persuades a Steamship Line President
“We arrived in New York twenty-four hours before the letter of credit was due to expire. If that happened, Joe wouldn’t be able to get his money from the bank. He would be in big trouble. They started loading the soap on the “lighters” which took the cargo to the freighters in the harbor. The unions weren’t as strict in those days, and I persuaded the longshoremen to let me help.” Joe worked all night helping to load the soap and on through the next day with the relief crew of longshoremen until noon. This, of course, demonstrated his commitment to the longshoremen. They all worked like horses, although the longshoremen warned him that they didn’t think they could complete the job in time.
Joe finally realized this was true. He wasn’t going to make it. The banks closed at two o’clock. Then, his letter of credit would be worthless. He wouldn’t get his “on board” bills of lading to give to the bank until it was too late.
The offices of the steam‑ship line were near the docks. Cossman found the president’s office and barged his way past the secretary into the president’s suite. He hadn’t washed or changed clothes in a week. “I thought I might have made good use of a case of my own soap,” he said. Without preamble, he told the president the whole story.
The president looked him in the eye. He recognized Cossman’s uncommon commitment. “If you’ve gone this far, you’re not going to lose the deal now,” he said.
The steamship line president pushed various buzzers on his desk, and people appeared from nowhere. Within minutes Joe had his bills of lading. This was at risk to the steamship line, because their insurance didn’t begin until the soap was on the ship. The president even sent his limousine to take Joe to the bank.
Joe got to the bank just fifteen minutes before closing time. He rushed in and presented his bills of lading. “The teller gave me a check for $1,800,000, and I went outside to get a taxi. Only then did I remember that though I had a check for $1,800,000, I didn’t have taxi fare to get back to my hotel.” Joe solved this problem too. He went back into the bank, which fortunately hadn’t closed, and got checks for all his creditors as well as some cash.
Cossman went on to build a multimillion-dollar corporation. His company sold dozens of unusual products, from 250,000 “Fisherman Joe’s” fishing lures to 1.8 million ant farms for children. His employees, and others outside his company never failed to follow Joe’s lead, for everyone knew that Joe Cossman was always uncommonly committed to whatever project he worked on. Joe simply would not quit. So, neither would anyone else that he became involved with, even though he had no official authority over some of them at all.
The Magic of Showing Uncommon Commitment
What’s so special about showing uncommon commitment? Why do others follow a leader who demonstrates this quality? Psychologists have identified two main reasons why showing uncommon commitment yields such dramatic results:
– It proves that the goal is worthwhile and really important.
– It proves that the leader isn’t going to quit.
Let me suggest to you that if you really want to be a commando leader, a leader others rely on 100% to get the job done . . . remember Joe Cossman and show the world that you’ll accept nothing short of success.
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For those interested in entrepreneurship, I want to tell you about another of my books that was recently published, now in its third edition. Since I wrote the first edition in 1982, The Entrepreneur and Small Business Problem Solver has sold almost 100,000 copies. Several years ago the Christian Science Monitor did a review and wrote:
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- How and where to find start-up capital
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THIS MONTH’S THOUGHT FOR LEADERS
“In case of doubt, push on just a little further and then keep on pushing.” – General George S. Patton, Jr.
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