By William F. Brandt, Jr.

Nice guys always finish last—so goes the traditional wisdom. But being nice—that is, expressing a “concern for others”—does not mean being weak, a pushover or unassertive. On the contrary, depending upon the circumstances, the same individual can be tough, competitive and assertive as well as sensitive and caring. I believe that organizations that foster the moral development of their members, and thereby encourage the appropriate use of a range of behaviors, give their organizations a tremendous competitive advantage over those that don’t.

In William J. O’Brien’s book The Soul of Corporate Leadership, he links the development of high performing value-based organizations with the moral development of their leaders. He indicates that much of American industry is run by a “command-and-control” governance structure, in which leaders tell their subordinates what to do and then check to see if it is done.

O’Brien contrasts this command-and-control approach with a “value-based” structure, where the leader points out the direction and the members find the best way to get there. With a command-and-control structure, what is important is “who” is in charge and actions are focused upon pleasing the boss, not making a mistake and keeping one’s job.

While command-and-control may be effective in situations where all of the necessary knowledge is held by the leader, it is of lesser value in a complex world where no one individual has all the answers.

Entities which embrace command-and-control governance structures are considered to be “traditional organizations.” That is, their members pursue their own “self-interests” and thus relate to each other on a transactional basis of “value received for services rendered,” without regard for the enterprise as a whole or its other stakeholders.

However, with a “value-based” orientation, the focus is upon whatever is in the best interests of the enterprise. In a value-based structure, work is organized not only to achieve specific tasks but also to serve the human need for purpose and the fulfillment of each member’s potential. Stakeholders pursue both “self-interest” and “concern for others.” Value-based enterprises act according to universal human values. What is important is that organizational leaders and members not only embrace these values but also practice them even when there are motivations to do otherwise.

My company, American Woodmark, went through its own cultural-change initiative to convert from a command-and-control to a value-based governance structure.

In the company, we had a wide group of people with attitudes ranging from those who immediately welcomed this transition because the new approach fit their own sense of values, to those who definitely would never adapt to the new culture. These people would eventually leave the organization through their own volition or that of the company’s.

As part of this cultural-change effort, we conducted a series of five-day leadership retreats for individuals with supervisory responsibility. More than 600 people attended and the changes in two in particular stood out:

Jim: Because of his aggressive attitude, when Jim came to the retreat, I doubted that he would ever make the transition to the culture we desired. But, I could not have been more wrong. About a week after the class, someone came up to me and said, “What did you do to Jim?” Everyone who worked with him said that he came back from the retreat a new person, treating people with care and respect that he had rarely exhibited before.

Rick: He was very strong technically but was abrasive and demeaning to those who worked for him. Rick, too, appeared unlikely to adapt to the new culture, but just like Jim, he returned from the retreat a “new person”—so much so that his wife called his plant manager to thank him for sending Rick to the retreat and asked if she could attend a future session herself. In less than a week, both Jim and Rick had gone through personal transformations that changed their lives.

Thus, through a cultural-change, organizations can foster their members’ growth toward moral maturity. People that achieve this status are neither “always nice” nor “always tough,” but rather they choose behaviors that best fit the circumstances. The cliché that nice people only finish last is a myth.


William F. Brandt, Jr., is cofounder and former CEO of American Woodmark Corporation—the third largest producer of kitchen cabinets in America. His books include the winner of 22 Book Awards COMPASS—Creating Exceptional Organizations: A Leader’s Guide and COMPASS TOOL KIT, the teaching companion to COMPASS ( ).

Copyright 2015 © William F. Brandt, Jr.







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