How do you define a leader? Is it someone people are willing to follow? I believe the best leaders don’t worry about how many people are behind them. They take action on an issue not because it’s popular, but because it’s right. Ed Stack, CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods is such a leader. He is featured on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Business under the headline “The CEO Taking On the Gun Lobby.” While the title grabbed my attention, it was Stack’s forthright, humble and honest insights not only about his advocacy but his business that kept me reading all the way to the end.
But the conversation begins with his thoughts on common-sense gun laws. In February 2018 after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida, Dick’s stopped selling assault rifles and high capacity magazines, and they required any gun buyer to be 21 regardless of local law. Why? Stack is quoted, “Watching those kids, listening to those parents – it had a profound effect on me. I said, I just don’t want to sell these guns, period.” He then destroyed $5 million in assault rifles rather than return them to their manufacturers. In the face of critics who say bans will have little impact on mass shootings, Stack candidly replies, “You know what? They’re probably right. But there will be less loss of life if an assault-style weapon isn’t used. And if we do all those things and we save one life, in my mind it’s all worth it.”
Common sense, plain speak and a compelling vision. In other words, leadership.
People today are more eager for their leaders to stand up. The Accenture Strategy Global Consumer Pulse Research found that sixty-two percent of 30,000 global consumers want companies to take a stand on the social, cultural, environmental and political issues close to their hearts. And they put their money where their mouths are, with 65 percent saying their purchasing decisions are influenced by the words, values, and actions of a company’s leaders.
So, my admiration of Ed Stack isn’t just because he’s picked a controversial and emotional issue and spoken out. His leadership is clear on all fronts of the business. Make no mistake, Dick’s is a sizeable business with 40,000+ employees at more than 700 stores around the country, and they are holding their own against giants like Walmart and Amazon. His style was formed in response to a demanding father who wanted to “make a man” out of him. He wanted to do it his own way. So, as a “smart goddam son of a bitch,” as his father called him, he went down to the bank, put the money together and bought his dad out.
Stack doesn’t say he always has the answers. He lets you see the questioning and self-doubt that go hand in hand with growing a business. Almost any business advice book will point out that strong leaders are confident enough to explore other points of view and consider all options. Leaders also admit to mistakes. In the face of bankruptcy resulting from an inability to stay ahead of expansion, Stack found a lender, slowed growth and controlled expenses, and most important learned from his mistakes. He makes a key distinction between regrets and mistakes, saying, “a regret is something you wish you could take back, a mistake is something that you did that you learned from and it helped make you who you are today.” He finishes the interview with what I’ve come to respect in his typical no nonsense style, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I don’t have a lot of regrets.” Thank you, Ed Stack, for being a leader.