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In the Footsteps of the Leaders

Most of you will never have heard of Andrew Skurka, but those who like to backpack will know the name. He was the 2007 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.

Andrew circumnavigated the state of Alaska solo, going nearly thirty days without seeing another human being.

Cartoon wilderness with a man hiking holding a map

Anyone can walk down an established path; Andrew likes to get off the path. He creates routes of his own that he shares with others. When you’re off-trail, there are two things you must have: one is a map, and the other is a compass. Andrew can read a map and a compass like we read a newspaper. I’ve hiked with him a few times, and he’s starting to let me do more of the navigating; that’s part of why I like to hike with him.

In today’s world, we have a map: we have the scriptures, and we have the examples of history and of great leaders around us. Each of us also has a moral compass. But too often, what I’m seeing is that those who are most qualified and able to read the map and the compass choose not to lead. That creates a vacuum, and the vacuum is being filled by people who, I think, are choosing to lead for the wrong reasons. Maybe it’s power, maybe it’s prestige, maybe it’s money, but they’re leading for the wrong reasons. They have an agenda that doesn’t necessarily correlate with an agenda we would agree with.

There are seats at the leadership table. As I think about the more than three hundred million people in the United States and as I think about this little group of people gathered here today, I feel there’s a reason that you are here at BYU now. I believe the Lord expects you to lead. He expects you to lead in your family; He expects you to lead in the church; He expects you to lead in your business; and maybe He even expects you to lead in higher levels of politics in our cities, in our states, and in our country.

What I’m hoping is that today you will make a decision and aspire to lead, because the world is in desperate need of the kind of leadership you can provide with your map and your moral compass.

The Incalculable Value of Integrity

I’m going to fish out of my pocket a coin. This is a dime. It doesn’t mean anything to you, but it’s very important to me.

When I drove here to the Tanner Building, I passed Helaman Halls. That’s where I lived my freshman year. I’d go down between tests and classes and do my laundry. Back then, the washers were a quarter and the dryers were a dime.

I was doing my laundry one evening, and there were several other guys down there too. One of the dryers, we found, worked whether you put a dime in it or not. It was malfunctioning.

We were all waiting for that dryer so we could save a dime, when a friend of mine named Dave Price came down. He got ready to put his stuff in it, and I said, “Dave, you don’t need to put a dime in that dryer; it works all the time!” He walked up and put his clothes in it, and then he put in a dime. I repeated, “Dave, you don’t need to put the dime in.”

“Sam, I wouldn’t sell my integrity for a dime,” he said.

His comment practically hit me between the eyes. Ever since then, I’ve carried this dime around. It’s just a little symbol. But integrity cannot have a price. Integrity means doing what you say you will do. It means you will stay true to your principles no matter how much pressure you get.

An Eye for Potential

I had the privilege of working around many motivational leaders in my time at Walmart. These leaders were thinking of others more than they were of themselves, and they were seeing potential in others that those people didn’t see in themselves. They saw something in us, and they brought it out. That’s what a good leader does: motivates and inspires others.

We’ve had perhaps the greatest example of a servant-leader that this country and maybe even the business world have ever known: Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart. Sam always put others before himself, and he was a servant-leader first, last, and always.

One of the first jobs I had at Walmart was helping a group we called our specialty division, which included parts of the store such as the pharmacy and the shoe department, areas that hadn’t been part of the original Walmart footprint. There I met John Waite, who had been hired to help start the vision centers in Walmart.

John told me he had previously been a consultant working with another retailer in Michigan. One day while John was there, he was in the back room with the store manager when an employee who had been setting out inventory in the store’s vision center came and told him a guest was behaving strangely.

“There is this old man with a ball cap and a yellow pad, and he has been in here asking me tons of questions and writing down everything I say,” she said. “I’m not sure I should be talking to him; maybe one of you should come and talk to him.”

The man with the yellow pad was Sam Walton. He talked to John for about thirty minutes, and the two exchanged cards. Three months later, John got a call from Sam, who said, “I want you to come and talk to me about opening vision centers in Walmart.” Now the vision centers are among the highest ROI businesses Walmart owns, and they started because Sam recognized an opportunity.

Very seldom do good leaders make decisions in a vacuum. They need good people around them to help guide them, and they need to listen to those people. This is an example of how you can find a path forward by listening to your people and watching the competition.

Leading by Example

When Sam died, his son Rob Walton took over as chair of the board of directors. Rob remained the chair from 1992 until 2015, and he has been a driving force behind the scenes.

One of the assignments I had early in my career with Walmart was to help get our business started in Mexico. Rob was very involved during that time. He was passionate about the international expansion opportunity his dad had envisioned, and he wanted to make sure that part of the legacy lived out.

One of the first times we went down to Mexico, we were meeting with a company we were partnering with. Back then, the policy at Walmart was two to a room; when you stayed at a hotel, you bunked with somebody to keep costs down.

Rob and I got to the hotel to check in, and I thought, “This is the chairman of the board, right? He is going to have his own room, probably up in the penthouse suite.”

Then he turned to me and said, “You’ll be rooming with me.”

I was scared to death. “I’m rooming with the chairman? I’m going to snore. I’m going to keep him awake.” But it turned out to be one of the best experiences I’ve had because it taught me so much. Rob was doing what he asked us to do: he was going to share a room. By the way, this was not a ritzy hotel; we often stayed in mid-priced hotels. That’s Walmart: we keep our costs down so that we can keep the prices down.

When people see you taking charge and trying to do the right thing, they want to follow. It makes all the difference in the world. You have to set the example.

Strive to Understand the Details

Cartoon office with a wall covered in awards

In our industry, we have a saying: “Retail is detail.” Some leaders get too far above the details to the point that they can’t make an educated decision. Knowing the details doesn’t mean you’re doing somebody else’s job for them; it just means you have an understanding. At Walmart, we always expected our leaders to be out in the stores. Even those in the information systems group were encouraged to get out into the stores, talk to people on the front lines, and understand the details.

A friend of mine, Andy Wilson, was promoted to be a vice president at Walmart. In his role, he was over about one hundred stores in what we called a region. Andy had a lot of awards and trophies, and his office was really cool.

One day, Sam Walton came into his office. “Congratulations, Andy,” he said. “I just have one important piece of advice for you. You have a nice office here, but never make an important decision while seated behind that desk.” And he walked out.

The week after, Andy got a phone call from one of his district managers in Louisiana. “There is a store manager here who is not cutting it,” the district manager said. “He has always had good performance, but now he’s gone downhill. We need to get a different store manager.”

Andy was sitting behind his desk, and his first instinct was, “This guy knows the situation. He’s on the ground, he’s close to it, and I trust his judgment. Okay, we should fire this manager.” But then Andy remembered what Sam had told him, and he asked the district manager for some time to think about it. He called our aviation department and got a plane down to Louisiana the next day.

He didn’t tell the district manager or the store manager that he was coming. He just got off the plane and went straight to the store. It was the store manager’s day off, as it turned out, which gave Andy a chance to talk to the employees: “Tell me about your store manager. Do you like him? How is he doing?”

They loved the store manager, they said, but then they added, “Boy, we really feel bad for him. His wife has cancer, and he hasn’t been able to spend his time and focus the way he used to.”

Andy called the district manager and said, “We’re not going to fire this guy. We are going to give him a leave of absence so he can take care of his wife while she is going through her cancer treatments.”

And that’s what they did. This guy turned out to be a fantastic leader for us—and we almost fired him.

When you are making decisions, you have to understand the details. You have to get out from behind your desk. You have to listen to others and seek their counsel. When you are making important decisions that affect the lives of others, you also have to seek divine inspiration. I have my power hour every morning, and you can too. When you wake up and you get that quiet time, you pray about the important things and you find answers in the scriptures. That is where your decision-making power will be.

Leaders must be decision makers. I’ve never met a great leader who was afraid to make a decision. They weren’t always right, but they were always accountable for the decisions they made.

Great leaders add to their decision-making and accountability a bias for action, which I think is critical for this reason: you can be pretty good at identifying paths and pretty good at making decisions, but unless you can put those decisions to work, you’re not going to be successful as a leader. You have to be driving results and making things happen.

So take a seat at the leadership table. Be a pathfinder: be someone who can see the way forward and set a pace that others can follow.


Lecture by Sam Dunn
Illustrations by Andrew Lyons

About the Speaker
Sam Dunn is a senior advisor at Boston Mountain Money Management. He was previously a senior vice president of strategy and business planning for Walmart Leverage Services and also served as CFO of Walmart Global Sourcing, Sam’s Club, and Dunn earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting from BYU in 1982 and is a CPA. This text is adapted from his BYU Alumni Achievement Award lecture on 14 October 2016.

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