The number 6. What does it mean? Well, unless you’re a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, the number 6 probably doesn’t mean much. Numbers have no meaning on their own. But when used by a leader, your plain old numbers can become a clarifying, motivating force. Take the number 6.

In the early 1900s, Charles Schwab was a steel magnate. 1 As such, he always wanted to increase production in his mills. Some improvements were mechanized—easy tweaks in industrial processes. Then came the plateaus that only a team of employees could overcome. Magic was necessary, it seemed. The machines and methods were at top form and only the speed and skill of the work crew could take them higher.

People, of course, aren’t like machines. Schwab obviously knew this and yet he was often unsuccessful in actualizing any increase in their productivity. He tried all kinds of tricks and tactics, some nice and some not-so-nice, and only stumbled upon the best method of influence when he took a single piece of chalk to the factory floor and wrote the number 6.

Big deal, right? What does “6” mean?

In this case, it related to the 6 “heats” 2 that the daytime crew had completed in their shift. Upon hearing of their achievement, Schwab drew the number “6” in chalk on the factory floor for the night shift to see.

What did the night shift do when they saw the number “6”? You can probably guess.

The next morning, Schwab returned to work to see the number replaced with a big “7” written with the same chalk. Suddenly, a new level of productivity had been discovered.

Competition is a motivating force. Numbers are a clarifying force. Give someone a target, with knowledge that someone else has gotten close, and it’s surprising to see what can happen.

That story comes from the original classic on influence—Dale Carnegie’s “How To Win Friends and Influence People”. However, for this week, we’re going to feature a different book called “Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change”. More to come in the days ahead but, for now, remember the power of a single number when it has the right meaning behind it.  

Image by Quin Dombrowski