A Penney saved?

Mark Lennihan/AP - In this Oct. 23, 2009 photo, Mike Ullman, then chairman and CEO of J.C. Penney, visits a company store in New York. Mike Ullman was renamed CEO after Ron Johnson was ousted on Monday, April 8, 2013.

I first met Mike Ullman in 2004, when he was “retired” after a successful stint as director general at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. I was working on a book about leadership, “Faith in the Halls of Power,” and he was contemplating an invitation that would bring him back to a corner office as the new CEO at J.C. Penney. “Do I want to be dealing with stock-market analysts every day? Have my name in the paper every day?” I recall him saying. “Do I want the pressure of being responsible for quarterly results? I don’t need the money, and I don’t need the fame.”

He ultimately took the position, and by the time of his retirement in 2011, two in five families in this country were shopping at Penney each year. Although the brand struggled relative to other department stores, it still earned higher customer-satisfaction scores than Nordstrom and higher employee-engagement scores than Starbucks.

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Ullman’s situation today is eerily similar to our 2004 meeting, but now even more is at stake. He left J.C. Penney in decent condition when Ron Johnson took over in 2011, but there’s no guarantee that he can turn it back around after its sharp decline under Johnson’s tenure. By returning, Ullman threatens his own legacy. Why come back to a poisoned well?

Ullman’s years at the department store kick started some innovations, such as bringing in brands like Sephora, but more than anything he simply kept the helm steady. So the board’s decision to bring him back, even on a temporary basis, has shocked many.

Yet in my opinion, it’s the wisest move they could make.

Johnson’s spectacularly failed approach — which was hailed just over a year ago — underscores how mistaken our assumptions about leadership really are. We pay too much attention to the dramatic flourish and too little to mundane management. We need less shine, more substance.

The board brought on Johnson initially to try to bring some of Apple’s sexiness to the dowdy department store. Johnson exuded youth, charisma and coolness. Ullman’s experience came from legacy institutions like Macy’s, Johnson’s from hip retail icons like Target.

Initially, Wall Street fawned over Johnson’s strategy of everyday low prices and wooing trendy brands to the store. But within weeks, the approach proved to alienate loyal customers while never bringing in new ones, leading to month after month of compounding losses. Under Johnson’s leadership, revenues fell almost 25 percent, Penney’s stock lost 50 percent of its value, and losses totaled nearly $1 billion.

Ullman’s leadership style, on the other hand, is the sort of quiet, stable approach that doesn’t draw much attention but that puts in the time to create something of value. I studied him over the seven years he led J.C. Penney and observed that, while some lead by walking around and others by issuing directives, Ullman leads by being present. A hallmark of his tenure at Penney’s were the two-day seminars he personally ran for small groups of managers throughout the year, giving leaders at all levels of the company direct access to him.

When CEOs are larger than life, the consequence is usually a wide gulf between front-line workers and the company’s top brass. Ullman, by contrast, has a confident modesty, one that earns the trust of those in the know and invites input from others. His unassuming demeanor likely stems in part from his Midwestern roots and his experience of leading with both a learning and a physical disability (he has a spinal condition that makes it difficult for him to walk).

It seems no coincidence. The best leaders, I find, are often the ones who have faced their own personal challenges. It adds ballast to their hard-charging personalities and humanizes them to virtually everyone.

These are hard times for the department store, but the board’s quick decision to call on Ullman — even if only on an interim basis — suggests they too have learned something about the difference between steady versus shiny leadership. Ullman’s return is a win for the company, but why, with so much at stake, has he decided to do it?

Ullman explained to me his reasoning for stepping up to the Penney plate the first time around. These words take on additional significance now that there is seemingly nothing for Ullman to gain:

“Leadership is a gift, but it’s also a skill in the sense you have to not want it for you, you have to want it for them. ...I think to the extent that you leave behind something better than you inherited it, that’s what it’s about.”

Ullman’s seven years of steady improvement were wrecked in sixteen months, and now he’s back at his own risk to make sure something better is left behind. There’s no flash, but there is substance. When we think of impressive corporate saviors, our minds shouldn’t turn to big names with magic wands. The real ones are known for their hard work of sacrifice and service, not self-glory-for their ability to think institutionally and their willingness to act personally.

D. Michael Lindsay is president and professor of sociology at Gordon College and is finishing a forthcoming book on powerful leaders.

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