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Leadership has become one of the most popular objects of research. Numerous works have been devoted to the analysis of the leadership styles exhibited by the most outstanding personalities of the 21st century – Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jack Welch, and Larry Brin remain at the forefront of the modern leadership research. Unfortunately, the society often forgets about the way leadership was developing and the names of the outstanding individuals, who brought leadership to its current form. At the heart of this analysis is the leadership style of Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart and the organizer of one of the most successful retail businesses on the planet.
In general terms, Sam Walton was the carrier of the servant leadership vision, although the concept of servant leadership was not thoroughly researched at that time. According to Greenleaf (1998), the essence of servant leadership is in caring for people and serving the needs of businesses by serving the needs of employees. According to Bergdahl (n.d.), former HR Director of Wal-Mart, Sam Walton was convinced that people were the company's most valuable asset. He sought to show to his people that he was caring about their jobs and successes (Bergdahl, n.d.). At the same time, he had enough charisma to make people follow his ideas.
Walton's motivational style was based on two essential criteria: consideration and empowerment. In terms of the former, Walton tried to show his friendliness and genuine employee support (Williams, Champion & Hall, 2011). He empowered his employees to achieve high goals and strongly believed that monetary rewards alone could not motivate his followers to make challenging decisions. He was confident that rewards had to be shared, and people had to be treated as partners. "If you treat people as your partners, they will perform beyond your wildest dreams" (Manning & Curtis, 2003, p.327). Everyone is appreciated for his/her efforts at Wal-Mart, and this is why they are so motivated to work towards the company's most important goals.
Sam Walton's negotiation style could be described as "cooperative". He was ready to share information and pursue open communications with competitors for the sake of satisfying the end customer. The brightest example of Walton's cooperative negotiation style is when he and Procter & Gamble President Lou Pritchett met during the canoe trip, which eventually led to the creation of a new strategic partnership (Roberts & Berg, 2012). Walton agreed to share Wal-Mart's sales and inventory data with P&G, which shaped a strong foundation for developing closer business ties between the two companies (Roberts & Berg, 2012). Eventually, the new partnership resulted in lower prices and greater customer satisfaction.
As mentioned earlier, Sam Walton favored openness in his relations with employees, competitors and partners, and his communication style was that of openness and sharedness. He believed that a leader had to communicate everything he knew, because information was the most valuable asset. According to Walton, only information and openness could let partners understand the meaning of their work. Today, it is not uncommon to have secrets from competitors and partners. Many businesses fear that openness will damage their image and disclose their plans to competitors. Sam Walton did not support this opinion: he claimed that the benefits of empowering people through information would always offset any risks associated with it (Brinkopf, 2011). The example of his relationships with P&G clearly illustrates this position.
The current literature does not provide any information on Sam Walton's conflict resolution style. However, a short example of his behaviors shows that, like in other activities, Walton was highly committed to cooperation, collaboration, and openness. Once, Sam Walton had to resolve a conflict between the head of his transportation unit and the truck drivers working for the company. The latter were dissatisfied with the department head's tough management style. They used the company's open-door policy to file a complaint directly to Walton (Williams et al., 2011). Walton gathered the truck drivers in his room and invited the head of the transportation unit to tell him that all the drivers wanted was to be appreciated for their work; the manager promised that he would do his job differently, and he kept thanking drivers for their job, as they were leaving Walton's room (Williams et al., 2011).
Sam Walton was one of the first corporate servant leaders, who treated his employees as the greatest company's asset. Wal-Mart became prosperous, because its leader empowered his followers and treated them as partners. He relied on openness in communication and was committed to the cooperative negotiation style. The company's open-door policy reflected Walton's striving to engage all employees in corporate decisions, while considering their needs and expectations.
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