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A Valuable Legacy: Lessons on How to Lead People

If your role in life is to lead people, you should take a close look at the inspiring leadership qualities of one man:

Arne Sorenson

Never heard of him? No worries, you are not alone. Frankly, I did not know who Arne Sorenson was either until I by chance came across a tribute article to Mr. Sorenson in The New York Times several weeks ago.

An example of one of many tributes from others.

Unfortunately, Mr. Sorenson died on February 15 from pancreatic cancer at the much too young age of 62.

For some reason, I was pulled into this article, which was a tribute to his incredibly effective manner in which he led his legions of people.

I became engrossed in this article. And then I came across another glowing tribute to Mr. Sorenson in the Wall Street Journal, and then another on Arne's way of engaging with people on, and then ....

Well, after reading multiple praising articles about this man and the way he led his business and personal life, I became a huge fan and admirer of what a true leader of people that Arne Sorenson was.

For those of you who were unaware like me, Arne Sorenson was the CEO of Marriott International. The first person not named Marriott to be CEO of what is now the world's largest hotel chain. (Be sure to click on the video clips of Arne below)

As I saw and kept reading the outpouring of emotion about his passing, I began to realize that this was no normal CEO. He was absolutely extraordinary.

The way he obviously touched and empathized with people was evident in the endless number of grief-stricken posts from his employees that emerged following his passing. There were heartfelt and personal tributes from everywhere around the world - including a slew of in-awe admiration missives from, of all things, his competitors.

No, this was no ordinary leader. He is someone we all should learn from, even posthumously, as we try to comprehend what true effective leadership looks like in the year 2021, and forward.

Look no further than Arne Sorenson's video address to all Marriott employees, shareholders, and customers at one of the worst moments in Marriott's history as the realities the devastating COVID-19 pandemic were setting in. It was clear at this early point in COVID that this rising global infection rate was going to shut down, or at least severely curtail, a majority of Marriott's business revenue at their over 7,000 properties worldwide. And, it goes without saying, put tens of thousands of their people out of work - immediately.

Oh, and by the way, at this critical point in time, Sorenson was not in great shape as he had just received powerful, debilitating cancer treatments to fight off his own potential deadly disease that was taking a big toll on his body and health.

Understandably concerned mainly about his questionable health and fragile appearance, the executive Marriott communications team suggested a highly logical and acceptable way for CEO Sorenson to send his state of the Marriott message amid the pandemic to his employees - a carefully crafted email statement to be dispersed worldwide.

Sorenson immediately vetoed that.

He insisted that all 174,000 Marriott associates worldwide must hear from their leader face-to-face. From his own perspective. From his heart. In as human and personal way as possible.

What he wanted was a video message of him alone, Arne, talking directly to each Marriott associates. Arne did not want this to come across as corporate talk. He did not want to hide behind an email.

He delivered his video titled "A Message from Arne" done his way. From the heart. It was sent around the world to Marriott associates via Twitter to his people on March 19, 2020.

In this nearly six-minute video, Arne lays out what the company must do in the months ahead like a caring general leading his beloved, and no doubt, worried troops.

Yes - there was more than one "elephant in the room" when "A Message from Arne" was delivered. Like a true, transparent leader, Arne thought it was important to go straight at the "elephants" from the very start.

First of all was the cancer-stricken leader's health, which was evident with his balding pate. Rumors were out there that Mr. Sorenson would not be able to lead much longer. So at the video's beginning, Arne made a joke about his balding look, and said in a convincing manner that he felt good and was ready to lead.

Now, enough about him - let's talk about the much bigger "elephant" in his mind - "the common crisis that we face - COVID-19" - and the effect on the Marriott business and the livelihood of everyone watching.

Forbes' Carmine Gallo wrote that Arne proved himself to be an authentic leader by releasing this video. "Authenticity" Gallo noted, "is more than a management buzzword. It's a way of acting and communicating that inspires loyalty."

Gallo pointed to five leadership principles that Arne upheld in his "A Message from Arne" video. These were key tenets that were underscored and were especially critical in the face of a terrifying crisis:

1. Deliver bad news face-to-face.

2. Tear off the band-aid quickly.

3. Show shared sacrifice.

4. End on a hopeful note.

5. Show genuine emotion.

Here's my take on each principle and why it is important from the perspective of employee looking up to the leader for guidance:

1. Deliver bad news face-to-face - Let your people hear it straight up - as personally and as directly as possible. It may be more challenging to accomplish this more personal interaction, and it will take more effort and time. In the end, it is worth the extra effort. Your people will appreciate that you took the time to do the tough job in a more human way.

2. Tear off the band-aid quickly - Arne at the beginning of his report says:

COVID-19 is like nothing we've ever seen before. For a company that's 92-years-old - that 's borne witness to the Great Depression, World War II, and many other economic and global crises - that's saying something. But here are the facts..."

Arne's facts are the true transparent facts. Eye-opening. Not very encouraging at this point. But, the facts are real. People appreciate facts. All of us can discern facts from fluff. No sugarcoating here.

3. Show shared sacrifice - Arne captures everyone's attention when he boldly states later in the video:

Both Mr. Marriott and I will not be taking any salary for the balance of 2020, and my executive team will be taking a 50% cut in pay.

Make no doubt. Arne is making sure that he is sharing some of the pain of his associates by demonstrating in real terms - taking away his own personal revenue - that he is trying to be in there, with his troops facing the economic consequences.

4. End on a hopeful note. Arne earnestly communicates that "we" - those watching along with himself - will get through this. (see video ending below) and,

5. Show genuine emotion. Be human. Not a CEO. But, an authentic, honest-to-goodness, caring and empathetic person.

As Forbes' Gallo says: "I'm glad Sorenson overruled members of his team who expressed reluctance about having him appear on video. The final 60-seconds of the video is impossible to capture in an email."

This is so true as you feel Arne choking back the tears as he truly connects with his people - heart to heart....

"This is what leadership sounds like" said one Marriott associate after viewing the video.

Yes, I wish I had gotten to know Arne Sorenson while he was alive. I bet you do too after watching these clips from "A Message from Arne."

But, as I have found out, the mere task of learning more about Arne while he was CEO of Marriott would have been challenging for an outsider like me as Arne was, by his very nature, humble.

He did not want to write best-sellers on "How to Lead" or have anyone write that about him. He avoided writers who wanted to develop featured stories on him.

Write about his company - Marriott? Absolutely. A story on him personally? No thanks.

Not your typical American CEO. (And, by the way, Arne was also an extremely dedicated family man who adored his wife of 40 years, and his four kids. Somehow - even as a CEO of a leading global company - Arne made time with his loved ones a priority.)

No, Arne was not big on "the talk" about how someone should lead their team. He preferred to demonstrate in his actions - leading his own people - all 174,000 - in a caring and empathetic way.

And, they got it.

Just listen to what people and business leaders said about Arne Sorenson following his passing:

A beloved CEO who made a point of connecting with everyone from the company's group leaders to housekeepers. - The Wall Street Journal

Arne genuinely cared about the people he worked with and took purpose to heart. - CEO of a competitive hotel chain.

One of Arne's greatest legacies is his principled and gracious leadership, an esprit de corps that I feel has been ingrained with Marriott's global associates. Long-time Marriott employee

Arne was truly a titan of the [hotel] industry and an incredibly easy person to talk to and interact with. Hotel industry publication writer

Arne cared intensely about the many thousands of his colleagues around the world. Sen. Mitt Romney and former Marriott board member.

From my experience, Arne's had a skill in rallying employees better than most any CEO I know of. Fortune 100 Corporate CEO

Arne was a visionary leader driven by passion for his people. President of the American Hotel & Lodging Association

And, there are many, many additional heartfelt tributes to this man and to the love that he had for his own people, and that they had for him

Pretty simple lessons that Arne left us with:

It's all about your people. Care for them. Empathize with them. Inspire them. Listen to them. Lead them.

Here is a man who truly deserves to rest in peace. A job incredibly well done, Arne.

Yes Arne, I really wish that I had the opportunity to know you while you were demonstrating this exemplary visionary leadership.

But, at least we have your principles to try and live by.

Thank you Arne.

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