January 7, 2024

I appeared on a podcast three years ago and the first question was a doozy.

Shortly after that, I had a discussion with marketing superstar Todd Brown on that same question.

And just this week, during a Titans Xcelerator call, the topic came up again.

The universe is telling me that I need to share the question again…how I answered it…with some updates.

The question: “How do you define leadership in business?”

I could go with more “standard” answers such as:

  • Set the direction clearly for the company so everyone is on the same page all the time.
  • Create a corporate culture that inspires innovation from within (and outside) the organization.
  • Follow a mission statement (or vision statement) that everything flows from in the company.
  • Etc., etc., etc.

There are hundreds more definitions of leadership in every great business book ever written.

I’ve read many of those books and there are many “systems” of leadership I still need to learn.

However, when asked this question the first time, I wanted to be contrarian…but not difficult…and not belittle every great book or system on leadership that has come before.

Rather, I wanted to share something from my experience that I believe no one else had shared (at least not on the podcast).

Not because it is such a radical idea…in fact, it is painfully simplistic.

I learned leadership (and management and marketing too) from a system we put in place at Boardroom Inc, where I worked for 34 years, the brainchild of our founder, Marty Edelston.

Marty was an avid reader of business books, so he knew the standard answers that defined leadership…but he didn’t have the training or the patience for extensive strategic planning or spending weeks or months coming up with mission statements and “rules” for becoming a better leader.

He was an idea guy through and through…an “Entrepreneur Classic” of the highest order…not a manager or a leader in a traditional sense.

He managed and led (and marketed) with his gut which served him well.

But he was always looking to improve.

He fueled his company the same way he fueled himself:

Through inquisitiveness, innovation, imagination (plus 9 other “I words” which I will share with you shortly), none of which had to do with “I” –but everything to do with “You,” “We” and “Us.”

Could leadership be this simple?

At Boardroom it was…but it took some extra inspiration (now there are only 8 more “I words” I need to tell you about). 🙂

And although a bunch of “I words” would be the furthest thing from an MBA’s brain regarding leadership, a complex management theory, or a high priced business consultant teaching leadership, it worked for us.

It worked to the tune of creating a $150 million+, privately held, iconic publishing and direct marketing company…from an initial investment of $20,000…known for thought leadership, marketing leadership and idea leadership.

Marty boiled it down to “leadership through ideas.

Now we’re down to 7 more “I words” (there are 12 in total) that you need to know about…please read on…

Early on they were mostly his own ideas (for the big things especially—he always said that “the big ideas led to the biggest mistakes and all of those needed to be his own”).

But eventually everyone else got to contribute their ideas, big and small, through the system below…and many others (including me) got to make some of those big mistakes as well…along with creating some huge breakthroughs.

The origin of “I-Power”

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the Japanese were cleaning everyone else’s clock in the business world.

They were world leaders in innovation and in most areas of management.

One of their core principles which seemed to be spearheading their success was Kaizen, which means “change for better” and evolved into something called “continuous improvement.”

From Japanese CEO Masaaki Imai to U.S. results leader W. Edwards Deming (and many others), it was a concept that caught fire.

Marty latched on to this principle big time.

He was prepared when he learned about it since he already had stationery that read:

Good, better, best…never let it rest…until the good is better…and the better best.

Embracing Kaizen and everything to do with continuous improvement became his passion…and it’s how he led the company…and his life.

But he needed a little help to turn his passion into reality from none other than the world’s top management and business consultant at the time, Peter Drucker.

Marty flew out to California to interview Peter (for our Boardroom Reports newsletter) …and after the interview he couldn’t resist tapping into Peter’s brain on the topic he was now obsessed with (i.e. Kaizen).

His question for Peter:

Our company is doing well…but all our meetings, in every department, are unproductive and not moving us forward. What do you suggest?

Drucker’s simple but game changing response:

Ask for 2 ideas from everyone in the organization every time they meet with you, meet among themselves…and you can even “create meetings for ideas only” and have everyone share 2 ideas at those as well (with nothing else on the agenda).

“Two ideas” will be their ticket of admission to ANY meeting.

And the 2 ideas don’t need to be relevant to the topic of the meeting at hand…they can be about anything to create a positive focus at the beginning of all meetings…and that will train your staff to think about continuous improvement all the time.

What was born that day was a simple, “suggestion hat system” that transformed Boardroom from a sleepy little publisher into a direct marketing powerhouse.

Everything was in place already…we just needed a spark.

And unlike other “suggestion hats” in most companies, this one had legs from the start.

“2 ideas per week per employee” was the quota (i.e. the minimum acceptable)…and required of all employees).

I-Power was not simply a “suggestion to suggest.”

It was part of your job description—and was even an item of assessment on everyone’s job review.

With a minimum of 100 ideas a year per employee.

Ideas don’t have to be big…because they are all big

With a required quota in place, ideas came in all shapes and sizes.

I must admit that sometimes they came out of desperation which was fine based on Drucker’s assertion that everyone needed to be “thinking about continuous improvement all the time.”

I recall one idea was to put the toilet paper in the bathrooms with the paper rolling down from the top rather than up from the bottom to prevent it from unraveling to the floor as easily.

This was as valid as any other I-Power idea because when folks are paid to think as part of their job description, they tend to think more.

And, with an additional feature of I-Power which included “cash prizes” for every idea (and for the “idea of the month” too), ideas were like pennies (dollars) from heaven. More on that in a minute.

The theory: Giving an employee “changing toilet paper installation” as a valid idea will eventually lead to other, more significant ideas.

This is not a theory; it became day-to-day reality at Boardroom.

And it created a culture of continuous improvement.

One of my favorite I-Power ideas (of the thousands that came in each year) came from someone in the organization at the bottom of the hierarchy–she worked in the fulfillment operation, responsible for sending out our books in the millions—but like everyone else, she was at the top of the food chain when she gave an idea, especially this one:

She noticed as she was calculating postage on one of our big encyclopedic books that the weight was slightly over a threshold that created a higher postage rate.

She submitted an idea that said something like, “If we could reduce the weight slightly of these books, we could pay a lower postage rate.”

She didn’t even need to solve it…just identifying the issue was the key.

Note that in this case it is doubtful that anyone else could have made this discovery except her…and now she had a system (i.e. I-Power) to make everyone aware of her finding.

That simple idea led to a huge result.

Reducing the trim size of the pages of the books slightly, and using a lighter cover stock, without cutting pages or content from the book, did the trick.

That led to a $300,000 savings in postage across all our big books of the same size.

That’s leadership bottom up…because there was leadership top down to create a system for it.

Sustaining over the long term: Not easy but simple

Suggestion hat systems often die under their own weight…but I-Power worked over a long period of time because…

  • …every idea got rated A, B, or C…an “A” got $10, a “B” got $5 and a “C” (e.g. the toilet paper idea) got $2. No idea was too small to be read, rated and paid on.
  • …the idea of the month prize was customized to the winner…a dinner for two at their favorite restaurant, maybe a “free vacation day” or $100.
  • …the quota/requirement was gamified rather than being a chore…we walked around the company at the end of each month with an envelope of CASH with your monthly I-Power payment…well, until we realized that was an IRS no-no…but we got taxes paid on the cash eventually.
  • …we created an easy-to-follow guide to I-Power (which Marty turned into a book, I-Power, The Secrets of Great Business in Bad Times)–so other companies could implement the system easily.

(NOTE: I just checked on Amazon…looks like there are some new and used copies available…it was never a bestseller and it is far from a masterpiece…but you can pick one up here if you like. Anywhere from $5 to $30…it will be a bargain at any price.)

  • …we used Boardroom as a case history/pilot program, developed a seminar (that we held in our offices in New York and in other cities) …offering I-Power supplies (e.g. 3-part chits for use by companies for their staffs) …all leading to additional success stories at small companies and large, from a 5-person accounting firm or 20-person marketing services agency to Anheuser-Busch and Rubbermaid.

I-Power became self-sustaining because everyone at Boardroom was encouraged, rewarded and became heroes for simply “thinking all the time.”

That made the simplicity easier the more we did it…and it’s what kept it going for over two decades.

And, as promised, here is the complete list of the 12 “I’s” of I-Power that equal “You”/”We”/”Us”:

  1. Ideas
  2. Ingenuity
  3. Invention
  4. Incentive
  5. Individual
  6. Invigorate
  7. Inquisitive
  8. Innovation
  9. Inspiration
  10. Intelligence
  11. Imagination
  12. Improvement

Using “I words” this way is a delicious irony…because the I-Power system is less about “I” and much more about improvement of the collective whole.

I still incorporate all of these “I’s” inside my company of three employees and dozens of independent contractors, with over 300 mastermind members, and an online family approaching 15,000, of which you are one.

Incorporating it at Boardroom, under Marty’s leadership style (through ideas), with a staff of 80+ employees, thousands of sources and authors, and millions of customers, is something that has stayed with me my entire career.

These fundamental “I’s” work both on the inside and the outside of your business because it’s a requirement to “walk around” in both environments all the time.

These “I’s” are not only delicious…they are transcendent.

My suggestion is that you incorporate them into your leadership style, whether you are a solopreneur or the CEO of a large company.

Walk around to lead.

Also use them in your management style (and feel free to complement them with anything else that you may deem fashionable from the hottest management consultants).

Walk around to manage.

(After all, some of those “academic managers” invented “management by walking around” which is totally in sync with I-Power.)

Even if you are unable to lead or manage by walking around all the time, you must incorporate all “12 I’s” into your marketing style.

Walk around to be a great marketer.

And now…give me 2 ideas. 🙂



P.S. I created a video after my discussion with Todd Brown—it’s around 7 minutes—which expresses the key points of the post above…and gets to the gist of why leadership can be as simple as “walking around” and gathering two ideas at a time.

This video is for those of you who go to the P.S. first or you simply want a shorter version of the post above. 🙂

Watch it here and let me know what you think:

About the author 

Brian Kurtz

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