Clorox CEO says it's all about being a better person with integrity, curiosity, optimism, compassion, and humility

March 1, 2011
DON Knauss believes that great leadership isn't necessarily about being an effective leader. It's about being an effective person. Knauss, chairman of

DON Knauss believes that great leadership isn't necessarily about being an effective leader. It's about being an effective person.

Knauss, chairman of the board and CEO of The Clorox Company, said in his HDAW keynote speech that leadership hinges on inspiring people by painting a picture of a better future. What are you trying to accomplish with the company?

“How many of you folks shop at Kmart?” he asked. “How many at Wal-Mart? Both companies had the same strategy: selling name brands at everyday low prices. One is almost out of business and the other one is a $400-billion company, the largest in the world. A lot of it goes to the leadership style of the people who led Wal-Mart, principally Sam Walton.”

He said the core idea at Clorox is this: “We must be the best at gaining a consumer's lifetime loyalty.” Relationships mean everything. They don't want a relationship for a week, month, or year. They want it for a lifetime.

To do that, there are three moments of truth: desire, decide, delight.

“Our advertising tries to create desire before they walk into a Wal-Mart or Safeway,” he said. “Are they predisposed to buying our brand? Now they've got to decide: Do we have the right assortment on the shelf? Is it merchandized right? Let's say you pick it up — then we've won two of the three moments of truth. Now take it home. If the product fails, you're not delighted. You'll probably get on the Internet and tell your friends what a miserable experience you had. Or what a great experience you had.”

He listed these Clorox values: Stretch for results; do the right thing; take personal ownership; and work together to win.

“When I got to Clorox four years ago, we were missing something: There was no real articulation of the leadership traits I wanted in the company,” he said. “I wanted it from all 8000 people.”

The traits and some of their key components:


  • Building trust is the key to effectiveness. He said that in 1953, during President Eisenhower's first term, he had a “prickly” relationship with the Senate, even though it was controlled by Republicans. One day, one of Eisenhower's aides was questioning a Senator's patriotism, but Eisenhower rebuffed him: “Enough! Why don't we start assuming the best in people? Let's build some trust and maybe we'll get something done.”

  • Tell the truth — they can take it. He told a story about George Marshall, who was in charge of operations for one of the US Army's 21 divisions in France during World War I. After division maneuvers didn't go well one day, General John Pershing criticized him in front of everyone. As Pershing started to walk back to a staff car, Marshall said the problem was ineptitude on the part of Pershing's staff. Six months later, Pershing had Marshall on his staff. Said Pershing, “Finally, I found someone who told me the truth. I needed the truth to get things done.”

  • A handshake should be enough — do the right thing. “We've become a country of litigants. We've got more lawyers in DC than there are in the entire country of Japan.”

  • Are you proud of yourself? “We all have a built-in BS detector. You can tell if somebody is really doing the right thing.”

  • It's all about character.


  • Ideas drive organizations and progress. Talking about Marie Curie, the first to win two Nobel Prizes (in physics and chemistry), he said: “Can you imagine the odds stacked against her, being a woman?”

  • World-class leaders are world-class learners.

  • Create a safe environment for debate. “As one moves up in an organization, the ability to get the truth becomes more difficult.”

  • A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world. “You've got to get out to understand what's going on. You've got to be curious about your craft.”


  • Lead from optimism — pessimism engages no one. “I'm not talking about being Pollyannaish, where everybody's singing Kumbaya. But you have to have a prevailing sense of faith that you will get through difficult times.”

  • Optimism creates positive energy throughout the organization.

  • Optimism nurtures dreamers and creates possibilities.

  • Optimists are problem-solvers. “When Margaret Thatcher took over in Britain, things were bad. She said, ‘It's not the job of government to create jobs. It is the job of industry to create jobs.’ She basically got out of the way of industry and got it privatized. Optimists are always looking for that better day.”


  • Have more concern for your people than yourself. “When people know that, it's amazing what they will do for you.”

  • The spirit of the law is as important as the letter of the law. “Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was giving the commencement address at Harvard in 1973 just after he got out of a Russian gulag. He said that any society based solely on the letter of the law and never reaching any higher fails to take advantage of the full possibilities of the human experience. If we just treat people on the letter of the law and ignore the spirit, we tend to lose a lot of our humanity.”

  • Life is not fair — use your power to make it fair. “Each of us has the ability to make it a little bit more fair.”

  • Tough love is required too. “We all have to make tough decisions. But if it's done transparently and you involve other people in those decisions, the right outcome will be there.”


  • Use authority, not power. “Power is the ability to compel somebody to do something. I could order people around at Clorox. You talk to people and try to explain what you want to get done. It's amazing how much more power you're given.”

  • Be approachable — you'll learn what's really going on.

  • Don't think you are indispensable. Charles de Gaulle: “The cemeteries of the world are full of indispensable men.”

  • If Gandhi can do it, so can you — but don't discount your own importance. “Everybody looks up to you in your companies, regardless of what position you are in. People are always observing what we are doing as leaders.”

He said real leaders take the people and assets they are entrusted with and make them more productive and valuable, and they can truly inspire people and organizations by living these traits.

Knauss said that Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play modern-day Major League Baseball, doesn't have anything related to baseball on his tombstone. It reads: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

“If we all embrace those traits and really focus on integrity, curiosity, optimism, compassion, and humility, we can really rally people to a better future and provide the glue that holds an organization together — and not only holds it together, but propels it forward and sustains it over time,” Knauss said.

About the Author

Rick Weber | Associate Editor

Rick Weber has been an associate editor for Trailer/Body Builders since February 2000. A national award-winning sportswriter, he covered the Miami Dolphins for the Fort Myers News-Press following service with publications in California and Australia. He is a graduate of Penn State University.