The Ultimate Leadership Test

A really great story bears retelling.  And, the one about the CEO of Charles Schwab failing a one-question exam in his senior year in college is profoundly poignant about what really matters to be a great leader.  

The story originated from an interview by NY Times writer Adam Bryant of CEO Walt Bettinger for Bryant’s February 4, 2016 “Corner Office” column.  Bettinger was taking a business strategy course in his senior year.  He had maintained a 4.0 average and was hoping to graduate with a perfect GPA.  He reported that he had spent many hours preparing for this final exam, memorizing lots of formulas to use during the test.  But, he got a life-long lesson in leadership when his teacher gave out the exam on one sheet of paper.  

Bryant reports Bettinger’s words this way: “I’ve taught you everything I can teach you about business in the last ten weeks,” said his teacher.  “But the most important message, the most important question is your single test question.”  Bettinger turned the exam sheet over and it was blank.  The professor spoke the single question: “What’s the name of the lady who cleans this building?”  

Bettinger was shocked. “It was the only test I ever failed,” he told Bryant.  “And, I got the “B” that I deserved. Her name was Dottie, and I did not know Dottie.  I’d seen her, but I’d never taken the time to ask her name.  I have tried to know every Dottie I’ve worked with ever since.”

Leadership is one of the most widely reported topics in the business arena.  Amazon has almost twenty thousand books with leadership in their title.  Yet, new leadership books come out at the rate of four or five a day.  It speaks to the mercurial mystery of leadership done well.  Since there is little debate over its definition—influencing another to achieve a goal—it could be posited that a major part of the core of influencing (and therefore leadership) is knowing Dottie’s.