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What My Son’s Lego Obsession Taught Me About Leadership

Empathy is the key to success in business and life

My son, like so many kids his age, is obsessed with Legos. He wants to be an engineer someday, so I can forgive the searing pain when I occasionally step on one.

His Lego love affair is definitely a love-hate relationship for me (and most parents). So, you’re probably thinking, “Aha! His empathy for his son, even after he had to hobble into the nearest chair night after night after stepping on Legos, was what inspired this book!”

Well, kind of. His obsession did, after all, inspire my research.

Do you realize why stepping on a Lego brick hurts so much? I do.

I’m a voracious reader, and besides, I had to do something while waiting for the pain to stop so I could walk back into my home office to catch up on some work after dinner. So, I did a little research on these popular toys.

That research turned up a lot of fascinating facts, including the answer to why in the world does stepping on a Lego hurt so much.

It’s because the geniuses behind their creation engineered each brick to withstand 953 pounds of pressure. It’s no wonder it takes forever for the pain to go away.

In fact, several organizations use what they call a “Lego Fire Walk” challenge to raise money for their favorite charity.

It does indeed feel like walking on fire when you run into a pile of them, especially in the middle of the night.

But my research also turned up a couple of compelling stories in the Lego brand’s fascinating history. Chief among them is a story about the Danish toymaker’s stunning comeback from near-bankruptcy, thanks to an unlikely hero named Jorgen Vig Knudstorp.

The manufacturer of the very toy whose value proposition is its ability to teach kids how to reinvent and rebuild was itself in dire need of a reinvention – or to be less tactful, an intervention.

Quick Takeaways

  • Be honest yet tactful when bearing bad news.
  • As a manager, listen to the customer – put yourself in their shoes.
  • Empower your employees – their ideas might be the next big moneymaker.

For Such a Time as This: An Unlikely Hero

A junior consultant in his thirties, Knudstorp came on board with Lego in 2001. Nerdy in appearance, he looked like a likely victim for the office bully.

But victim he was not. In fact, he climbed from a junior nobody to the company CEO within three years. Even more surprising, Knudstorp was the first person outside of Lego’s founding family to become its CEO.

During his first years at Lego, Knudstorp recognized that the company was in deep water financially. After a huge expansion, followed by a 29 percent drop in sales, the company was hurting, with huge toy and private equity firms drooling over its almost-certain demise, sure that they could acquire Lego at a fraction of its actual worth.

He Listened – and Then Told the Truth

Knudstorp didn’t give up, though. Nor did he polish up his resume for his next position.

What he did was talk to customers and employees, in search of a solution. After two years, he asked to meet with the C-suite. He pointed out some of the flaws he found through his research. One glaring fact stood out. Although they made only one product (with minor variations in color, shape, and paint), they used 14,000 suppliers. No wonder they were going broke.

After he broke the news to the suits, he called his wife to tell her he’d probably get fired. Instead, the company – in a last-ditch move – hired him as the CEO.

It was a case in which a desperate move was the only logical alternative, to paraphrase Star Trek’s uber-logical character, Mr. Spock. And it paid off.

He Put Himself in His Customers’ Shoes and Became a Legend

Here’s where empathy comes into the picture. To get a handle on its appeal, Knudstorp watched children play with their favorite Lego toys, trying to put himself into their shoes – into their mindset.

He hired both psychologists and designers to study how the children played, both by themselves and with others. By making the end customer – the children – the center of his research, he brought the company back from the brink of bankruptcy into what it is today.

But Knudstorp isn’t the only hero of this story. The C-suite executives who took a chance on this young man who was honest enough to tell them the truth deserve a lot of credit for their gutsy decision. They listened, and the rest is history.

Listening and then putting yourself into your own employees’ and customers’ shoes is what makes you a good manager. It’s not about being the rhinoceros, the alpha, or any other animal-based theories of leadership that have come and gone over the years. And it works, no matter what your personality type, unlike the rest.

In fact, Knudstorp didn’t only listen to his pint-sized customers. He put the same philosophy to work within the company as well.

Listening to – and Empowering His Employees – Paid Off

For example, if it wasn’t for Knudstorp’s willingness to listen to his marketing team, there wouldn’t have been the wildly popular Lego movie. Other concepts, too, such as crowdsourcing new ideas, were also the brainchildren of his openness to learning others’ ideas and putting them to work.

Those innovative moves yielded a fivefold increase in revenue, according to a 2016 Washington Post article. As I’ve long contended, empathy doesn’t just build goodwill. It can build profits as well.

With its foundation in a man who knew how to leverage hard times into fun times, Lego has returned to its roots. Its founder, Ole Kirk Christiansen, started as a furniture maker. When the Great Depression caused demand to drop off, he founded a toymaking shop instead.

Somewhere, Ole Kirk is smiling down fondly on his old company. It’s in good hands.

So what do you think? Please consider picking up your copy of Mean People Suck today, and get the bonus visual companion guide as well. Or check out our services to help evolve your culture. And I would be thrilled to come present to your team on the power of empathy. Get in touch with me today!

This article originally appeared on Mean People Suck .com

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