Hobby Lobby – Win the Battle, Risk Losing the War

Hobby Lobby – Win the Battle, Risk Losing the War

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby and against the U.S. government in a case revolving around health care for employees.  I’m a business person, not a lawyer, so to me it was key to understand from a business viewpoint exactly what Hobby Lobby “won.”

It appears Hobby Lobby’s leaders “won” the right to refuse to provide certain kinds of health care to their employees as had been mandated by the Affordable Care Act.  The justification primarily being that such health care (all associated with female birth control) violated religious beliefs of the company owners.

As a business person I wondered what the outcome would be if the next case is brought to the court by a business owner who happens to be a Christian Scientist.  Would this next company be allowed to eliminate offering vaccines – or maybe health care altogether – because the owners don’t believe in modern medical treatments?

This may sound extreme, and missing the point revolving around the controversy over birth control.  But not really.  Because the point of business is to legally create solutions for customer needs at a profit.  Doing this requires doing a lot of things right in order to attract and retain the right employees, the right suppliers and  customers by making all of them extremely happy.  I don’t recall Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, Peter Drucker, Edward Demming, John Galbraith or any other historically noted business writer saying the point of business to set the moral compass of its customers, suppliers or employees.

I’m not sure where enforcing the historical religious beliefs of founders or owners plays a role in business.  At all.  Even if they have the legal right to do so, is it smart business leadership?

Hobby Lobby Store

Hobby Lobby Store

Hobby Lobby competes in the extraordinarily tough retail market.  The ground is littered with failures, and formerly great companies which are struggling such as Sears, KMart, JCPenney, Best Buy, etc.  And recently the industry has been rocked with security breaches, reducing customer faith in stalwarts like Target.  And profits are being challenged across all brick-and-mortar traditional retailers by on-line companies led by Amazon, who have much lower cost structures.

All the trends in retail bode poorly for Hobby Lobby.  Hobby Lobby does almost no business on-line, and even closes its stores on Sunday. Given consumer desires to have what they want, when they want it, unfettered by time or location, a traditional retailer like Hobby Lobby already has its hands full just figuring out how to keep competitors at bay.  Customers don’t need much encouragement to skip any particular store in search of easily available products and instant price information across retailers.

Social trends are also very clear in the USA.  The great majority of Americans support health care for everyone.  Including offering birth control, and all other forms of women’s health needs. This has nothing to do with the Affordable Care Act.  Health care, and women’s rights to manage their individual reproductiveness, is something that is clearly a majority viewpoint – and most people think it should be covered by health insurance.

So, given the customer options available, is it smart for any retailer to brag that they are unwilling to offer employees health care?  Although not tied to any specific social issues, Wal-Mart has long dealt with customer and employee defections due to policies which reduce employee benefits, such as health care.  Is this an issue which is likely to help Hobby Lobby grow?

Is it smart, as Hobby Lobby competes for merchandise from suppliers, negotiates on leases with landlords, seeks new store permits from local governments, recruits employees as buyers, merchandisers, store managers and clerks, and seeks customers who can shop on-line or at competitors to brandish the sword of intolerance on a specific issue which upsets the company owner?  And one where this owner is on the opposite side of public opinion?

Long ago a group of retired U.S. military Generals told me that in Vietnam America won every battle, but lost the war.  Through overwhelming firepower and manpower, there was no way we would not win any combat mission.  But that missed the point.  As a result of focusing on the combat, America’s leaders missed the opportunity win “the hearts and minds” of most Vietnamese.  In the end America left Vietnam in a rushed abandonment of Saigon, and the North Vietnamese took over all of South Vietnam.  Although we did what leaders believed was “right,” and fought each battle to a win, in the end America lost the objective of maintaining a free, independent and democratic Vietnam.

The leaders of Hobby Lobby won this battle.  But is this good for the customers, suppliers, communities where stores are located, and employees of Hobby Lobby?  Will these constituents continue to support Hobby Lobby, or will they possibly choose alternatives?  If in its actions, including legal arguing at the Supreme Court, Hobby Lobby may have preserved what its leaders think is an important legal precedent.  But, have their strengthened their business competitiveness so they will be a long-term success?

Perhaps Hobby Lobby might want to listen to the CEO of Chick-fil-A, which suffered a serious media firestorm when it became public their owners donated money to anti-gay organizations.  CEO Cathy decided it was best to “just shut up and go sell chicken.”  Business is tough enough, loaded with plenty of battles, without looking for fights that are against trends.


The Power of Myth – It Can Kill You – Collins, Thurston


  • When we don’t know what works, we create myths to describe what might work
  • Much of business theory is little more than myth
  • “Good to Great” has been a best seller, but it is not helpful for good management
  • To grow business today requires abandoning management myths and aligning with changing market needs

Good to Great by Jim Collins has been a phenomenal business best seller.  Almost 10 years old, it has sold millions of copies.  It continues to be featured on end caps in book stores.  That it has sold so well, and continues selling, is a testament to a much better book by the legendary newsperson Bill Moyers with Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth.” (Original PBS 2001 TV show available on DVD, or get the new release this month.)

When we don’t understand something we develop theories as to how it might work.  These theories are based upon what we know, our assumptions, and our biases.  They could be right, or they might not.  Only testing determines the answer.  However, sometimes the theory is so powerfully connected to our beliefs that we don’t want to test it – don’t feel the need to test it.  And if the theory hangs around long enough, people forget it wasn’t tested.  What easily happens is that “logical” theories (based upon assumptions and beliefs) that don’t explain reality become myth.  And the myth becomes very comforting.  Over time, the myth becomes part of the assumption set – unchallenged, and actually used as a basis for building new theories.

For example, the founder of modern medicine – Galen – didn’t understand the circulatory system.  So he thought blood was oxygenated by invisible pores.  As time passed it became impossible to challenge, or even test, this theory.  Eventually, blood letting was developed as a medical practice because people thought the blood stored in the affected area had gone bad.  It was several hundred years before Harvey, through careful testing, proved there were no invisible pores – and instead blood circulated throughout the body.  Millions had perished from blood letting because of a myth.  Bad theory allowed to go unchallenged and untested. It just sounded so good, so acceptable, that people followed it.  Dangerous practice.

Thomas Thurston now gives us great insight to the popular myth developed by Jim Collins in Good to Great.  Published by Growth Science International (http//growthsci.com) “Good to Great: Good, But Not Great” Mr. Thurston puts Mr. Collins thesis to the test.  Is it a usable framework for predicting performance, and do followers actually achieve superior performance?  In other words, does the advice in Good to Great work?

Mr. Thurston’s conclusions, quoted below, are quite clear, and mirror those of academics and lay people who have studied the storied Mr. Collins’ work:

  • Even with the copious guidelines set forth by Collins, sorting CEOs into each category proved a highly subjective process.  The classification scheme was ambiguous
  • Level 5 leadership was difficult to categorize with reliability and consistency
  • Our sample [100 well known firms] did not reveal any statistically significant difference in the performance of firms led by Level 5 and Not-Level 5 leaders.  Performance in each category was approximately the same.
  • Level 5 leadership classifications were, in practice, highly subjective and not predictive of superior firm performance.
  • In other words, our results concluded that one can not predict whether a firm will perform good, great or bad based on its having a Level 5 Leader.

We like myth.  It helps us explain what we previously could not explain.  Like early Greek gods helped people explain the complex world around them.  But, when we build our behaviors on myth it becomes extremely dangerous.  We depend upon things that don’t work, and it can have serious repercussions.  Mr. Collins glorified Circuit City and Fannie Mae in his book – yet now one is gone and the other in disrepute.  Meanwhile his list of “great” companies have been proven to perform no better than average since his publication.

In Good to Great Mr. Collins offers a theory for business success that is very appealing.  Be focused on your strengths.  Get everybody on the bus to doing the same thing.  Make sure you know your core, and protect it like a hedgehog protects its home.  And make sure all leaders follow a Christ-like approach of humbleness, and leader servitude.  It sounds very appealing – in an Horatio Alger sort of way.  Work hard, be humble and good things will happen.  We want to believe.

But it just doesn’t produce superior performance.  There are no theories that have identified “great” leaders.  Success has come from all kinds of personalities.  And, despite our love for being “passionate” and “focused” on doing something really “great” there is no correlation between long-term success and the ability to understand your core and focus the organization upon it.  Thousands of businesses have been focused on their core, yet failed.

What we need is a new theory of management.  As the Assistant Managing Editor of the Wall Street Journal, Alan Murray, wrote in “The End of Management,” industrial era management theories about optimization and increased production do not help companies deal with an information era competitiveness fraught with rapid change and keen demands for flexibility.

Increased flexibility and success can be assured.  If companies make some critical changes

  1. Plan for the future, not from the past.  Do more scenario planning and less “core” planning
  2. Obsess about competition – and listen less to customers
  3. Be disruptive.  Don’t focus on optimization and continuous improvement
  4. Embrace White Space to develop new solutions linked to changing market needs

This does work.  Every time.

update links on Thomas Thurston 5/2014: