Published by:

  • Leadership – Speeches – Workshops
  • Personal Training – Consulting
  • Leadership – Marketing – Strategy

Vol. 1, No. 10
(626) 791-8973


© 2003 By William A. Cohen, PhD,  The Institute of Leader Arts,

To me, a turnaround has always been the ultimate test of a leader’s strengths and abilities. My definition of a turnaround is a situation that the leader faces which is bad and unacceptable, is frequently getting worse, and that the leader has no alternative but to change as soon as possible.  Another words it is a crisis situation.

A turnaround provides strong confirmation of a leader’s worth. Were it not for the leader, the situation would still be bad, still be in crisis. But due to the efforts of one individual, one leader, everything changes.

Gordon Bethune at Continental Airlines

Back before 911 when the airline industry was strong, Continental Airlines was in last place out of ten major airlines. It had gone through numerous CEOs. All had failed to alter the situation. Then in 1994, the board of directors hired Gordon Bethune. Bethune turned Continental around almost immediately. Within two years it had gone from last place to first place in the industry, and instead of losing money it was making it . . . and not just a little . . . but quite a lot. Even in these bad years for the industry, sales grew by a little over 6% last year.

What I Learned at My First “Job”

As a young Air Force lieutenant I was a member of the 11th Bomb Wing at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma. It had been one of the finest B-52 bombing wings in Strategic Air Command and was not infrequently ranked number one. Unfortunately, over a period of time, the unit had begun to slip. We failed to do some of our training requirements successfully. We made some late take-offs due to maintenance problems. Our sense of mission disappeared. We even failed an ORI or Organizational Readiness Inspection, which was an important and unannounced test of our flying and combat skills. Once we had been at the very top, but we were now ranked dead last, the worst wing in the command.

 A New Leader on Board

One evening, while on duty, I received a hurried call from base operations. “There’s a new commander on base. His name is Colonel Kyes. Stay out of his way.”

We couldn’t stay out of his way, because Colonel Kyes visited us that night. He cancelled all leaves of absence. All “free time” of any sort was rescinded until further notice. This included weekends and even crew rest after flight. Colonel Kyes moved commanders and staff he judged lacking to less responsible positions on the spot. He encouraged others to retire. No career or individual was sacred.

How Colonel Kyes Turned Things Around

Colonel Kyes met with all of the 1500 officers and airmen reporting to him. He told each where we were going . . . back to the number one position. He also showed us how we were going to get there. He said we would brief every mission flown to him personally before we could fly it. Pilots had to know as much about the target as their bombardiers and navigators. And bombardiers and navigators had to be able to back up their pilots as well.

At first, we hated Kyes. Our wives and girl friends hated Kyes.  But then, our hard work began to show results. Our practice bombing was right on target. We took off exactly at take-off time. The ground crews and maintenance personnel maintained our aircraft so that they flew better than they had ever flown before. We worked together as a team, and we worked well.

Hate into Love

A couple months after Colonel Kyes arrived, we had another surprise ORI. We not only passed, but also scored higher than we ever had in the past. We were ranked number one.

A strange thing began to happen. We felt pride in ourselves and pride in Colonel Kyes as our commander. Our hate turned to respect. When Colonel Kyes left the 11th Bomb Wing on his promotion to Brigadier General a year later, there was a genuine sense of loss. Our respect had by than turned to something approaching love. Colonel Kyes eventually wore the three stars of a Lieutenant General. But for an untimely death, I believe he would have attained the fourth star of a full general.

Important Lessons from General Kyes

General Kyes’ life taught me some important lessons about leadership and the difference one individual can make in helping an organization to reach its goals especially in a turnaround. And I have seen that lesson repeated again and again. I have seen it in large organizations and small, in formal organizations and informal ones, in both military and civilian organizations. The lesson is that one individual and his or her leadership makes all the difference between success and failure of the mission and the morale of the people. And it doesn’t matter if that mission has to do with national defense or making a profit.

More Lessons from a Friend in a Different Kind of Turnaround

A friend of mine worked as a project manager in his father’s engineering company. He was his father’s only son, and had been well educated at one of the country’s most prestigious private colleges. However, his father didn’t believe in sharing power with a progeny. He felt that there would be plenty of time to train his son to run the company when he was old and retired.

Suddenly He’s the President

Nine years later, when my friend was only thirty years old, his father suddenly died of a heart attack. In one day, he went from middle manager to the presidency. I met this man only five years later. In five years, his company had quadrupled in size. His leadership was heralded by experts, and he and his company were written up in several important business magazines. How had this unique individual taken charge and asserted his leadership under crisis conditions? How had he managed to do so well in this kind of turnaround?

If You Want To Know Something, Ask

If you want to know something, there is frequently only one way to find out. That is to ask. So I asked. “It wasn’t easy,” my friend said.

“First there was the shock over my father’s death. Than there was finding out the company’s situation. My father hadn’t confided in anyone. Everyone had a little piece of the puzzle. No one had the full story.

“The most difficult thing, however, was to assert my leadership. I was now leading people who had been very senior to me in the company. Some had been with the company since before I was born. Not all of them were able to adjust to my style, my goals, or even just me.  They refused to accept my leadership.

“I tried to make it as easy as possible for them, and to give them every chance. But when you got right down to it, I was in charge. I had no choice but to fire more than a few.

“Gradually, things got better. People could see that my policies and strategies were working to improve the position of the company. They got behind me completely.

“When I think back to those first few months, I don’t know how I did it. It was the toughest thing I had to do in my life. But I had to do it. I had no alternative.”

How would you like to take charge of an organization under those circumstances? As a leader, sometimes you don’t have any choice.

Here are seven important areas on which to focus in conducting a turnaround, or for that matter, in any crisis situation. I won’t discuss them this month, but I will in next month’s newsletter:

  1. Establish a clear objective
  2. Communicate with those you lead
  3. Act boldly
  4. Be decisive
  5. Dominate the situation
  6. Lead by example
  7. Hire and fire wisely