At its best, the EDS I helped create was both fiercely competitive and instinctively collegial. At its worst, we gave way to our young, male, military model. Two stories illustrate what I mean.
Tom Walter was the head of systems engineering when I joined the company. He was about the twelfth person in; I was number 54. I worked indirectly for him — about six lines down. Early on, Tom and I got into a scuffle over technology. It was a silly argument. But it set the tone for the way things would be between us. We became internal competitors. Then one day our interactions took a new turn. I was giving a presentation inside the company. When I was done, I was sure it was the best presentation I'd ever given.
Afterward, Tom quietly pulled me aside: "Maybe you should think about removing about three-fourths of the `I's from your presentation. It gives people the impression that you're an egomaniac — and I know you're not." I reran the presentation in my head and Tom was right. He had found a way to criticize me in a constructive way — even though we were corporate competitors.
Years later, Ross asked me about Tom: "Tom is one of the smartest and best people I know, but he's not getting much traction where he is. Should we move him?" I suggested that Tom become the CFO, even though he didn't have the formal credentials for the job. Tom became CFO and shortly thereafter I became president — and for the next eight years, Tom was my closest adviser and confidant.
But there was another episode that showed how things could sometimes get out of hand. It was 1967 and I was running the team implementing Medicare claims processing. There were about 50 people on the team, and we were under an enormous amount of pressure, working 18-hour days.
We were racing the clock to get the project done before the first of the year. One day in December it snowed. Everybody made it in to work — except Max. At 10 a.m., I called Max's house and I was all over him. His absence that day, I said, meant that he wasn't on the same page as the rest of us. After we had this run in, Max took the first exit out of the company he could find.
As it turns out, the Max on my team was Max Hopper: after EDS he went to work for American Airlines, where he invented SABRE, which revolutionized the airline reservation system. I saw Max not long ago. It was very friendly and warm. We didn't speak of the old incident in our EDS days — but it was on both of our minds. We reconciled without any explicit reconciliation.
Looking back on the boot camp mentality that we used to shape leaders, I see how quick I was to judge others. Today I believe that leaders need to be good at psychology — starting with self-knowledge. Leaders today can't be manipulators, not even slick manipulators. They have to be genuine. They have to have gotten over their own internal hurdles.
A version of this article appeared in the April/May 1996 issue of Fast Company magazine.