I was talking with my wife the other morning, in preparation for a presentation I was asked to deliver at the California Tech Conference. She reminded me of that cliché that I am sure you all have heard, “it’s not like we are saving lives!” She then said, she didn’t agree with that. “Leadership does save lives,” she said, “the lives of your employees and their families.”
Of course, she wasn’t referring to saving lives in the literal sense, but in order to comprehend the exact essence of her point, we have to have a common understanding of the definition of good leadership, or more appropriately, poor leadership.
My earliest memories of leadership were of my dad. I remember him getting reached on his pager, like clockwork as we would sit down for dinner. He would stand in the kitchen, talking on the phone, which back in those days, phones were attached to the wall. Very formal, very serious, very business-like. That’s what I wanted! So, when I arrived in Silicon Valley in 1998, I had high expectations. But, that was just not (yet) my reality. What I found, was that I was young and inexperienced. I had to work hard, to be twice as smart, twice as fast as my older, smarter and more successful colleagues. I wasn’t going to be held back by the ideas of my father’s generation that you work hard, do the right thing and wait your turn. I wanted to make an impact. I knew I could make an impact, if I only could find someone to believe in me, to give me a chance. Turns out, that became my theme for my career — finding people to give me a chance.
I began my leadership career at age 27. I took over a team that had a record performance the year prior, but ended in the termination of its leader due to bad behavior at a Las Vegas kickoff event. I lacked general business experience. I lacked leadership experience. Most importantly, I lacked the fear of failure. I had nothing to lose. I certainly marched to my own drum and payed no attention to comments I received, like “slow down young man” or “give it a few years before you make such bold statements.” In those days, I didn’t know why what I did worked, or even what I was doing that worked. But my teams produced…..and yes, it just worked. 18 months in, I had the top performing team in the world. A big accomplishment in the fourth largest software company in the world.
My career has largely been a series of those experiences; extraordinary performances stemming from someone who believed in me and gave me a chance, followed by my own mental forensics to understand what worked and why it worked. I learned that I am passionate about leadership, passionate about learning about leadership and passionate about developing other leaders. I am intoxicated with the idea that I could affect someone’s career and their life. 18 months in, I was committed to sharing whatever talents I could with the world.
- Honesty – leaders get a bad rap (not necessarily wrong) for being dishonest. That is because of the lucrative nature of their job. The harder they push their teams to sell, the more attention, funding and compensation they receive. Corporate America plays on the financial greed of employees at all levels.
- Integrity – related to honesty, but broadens the definition to what you actually do, which affirms what you stand for. Integrity is being honest and doing the right thing — all the time.
- Authenticity – no matter what the message, being authentic in delivery speaks to the true character of a leader. We have all had that leader who looks like they are reading an excerpt from their latest leadership “how-to” book from a teleprompter. Be authentic in good news or bad. It goes a long way.
- Vision – seeing opportunity when others cannot. The job of a leader is to assess the assets (skills) the team possesses, and get the right people in the right roles.
- Creativity – Early in my career I didn’t consider myself creative. After all, I began my professional life in the dot com era. There were seemingly brilliant ideas everywhere in Silicon Valley. What I quickly realized, but didn’t understand for many years, was that I was absorbing and assembling these great ideas. My craft was finding the ones that could work in concert, stitching them together into a better, shinier version.
- Confidence – remember the scene in The Matrix, right after Neo gets bad news from the Oracle? Morpheus says with clear confidence, “what she said was for you, and you alone.” We later learned the news shared by the Oracle wasn’t exactly (literally) accurate. However her role was to “say what is needed to be heard.” Being confident doesn’t always mean being right, but it’s fiercely fighting for what you believe and giving those around you what they need to hear.
“The commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon is wrong, unless proved otherwise.” Colin Powell
- Motivational – could you imagine Al Pacino’s famous “inches” speech in the locker room of the movie Any Given Sunday delivered by Will Farrell? Probably not the same effect. Being motivational is about giving people something to believe in, not just while on stage, but all the time. Motivation encapsulates the sum total of a leader’s life; family, friends, spouse, kids, hobbies and whatever else makes up their existence. It must be congruent.
LEADERSHIP IS A RESPONSIBILITY
I have worked with many brilliant executives, amazing leaders, inspirational and motivational; only to see them as a person, as a wife or a husband, as a parent, as a friend, as a human, to be complete disaster.
You know the type:
- They proudly announce they spend 200+ days away from home annually, traveling for work
- Their 3rd marriage is more of a partnership than a relationship
- They almost never speak about their personal lives, family or kids
- They are filthy rich and awarded handsomely by corporate America
“You do not lead by hitting people over the head. That’s assault, not leadership.” – President Dwight D. Eisenhower
I read an article recently from the Harvard Business Review about America’s obsession with the narcissistic leader, and how the success they drive at all costs is in the name of investors’ or shareholders’ profits. It’s unfortunate that this is the main measurement of success because bad leadership hurts people; and more importantly, it destroys families. This toxic leadership is popping up throughout American business and being rewarded at a corporate level. In fact, many of our highly publicized heroes are considered “productive narcissists.”
As an example, Steve Jobs changed life as we know it. Since his passing, numerous books have come out talking about how difficult it was to work for him or how horrible it was to even be around him. How many lives did he damage or destroy to bring us the iPhone? Don’t get me wrong, I am an iPhone user, a Mac user, an iTunes user and admire his brilliance — but we must be aware of the characteristics we ascribe to these titans of industry. They deserve a special place in history for their brilliance, but we need to be careful not to confuse brilliant innovators with brilliant leaders.
Let me pose a broader question, “should we allow these brilliant minds to be leaders of people?” What was once chalked up to individual failure, is now a pervasive and insidious trend stemming from abusive leadership. This phenomenon may not exit modern business anytime soon, so if you find yourself working for a narcissistic leader, do your research. From what I have found, the common advice is, “get out.”
The responsibility we have is to look after our people, to foster an environment where they can learn and grow. Failure is part of learning. A leader’s greatest achievement is creating another leader; Providing love and care that can be expressed and passed on again, and again. A leader’s job is to serve their people, not the other way around. I wrote before on that topic in an earlier article: Leaders often forget whom they serve.
“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” – Jack Welch
I have been fortunate in life and in my career to have experienced success. I have been blessed to have experienced mostly great leadership and have benefited by seeing how personally damaging poor leadership can be. I will never be the smartest guy in the room, but I can be the greatest enabler of people to achieve goals in their career, their family and in life.
“Earn your leadership every day.” – Michael Jordan
So, in conclusion, my wife asked me to begin a movement, which I thought was an important request. Or a calling, rather. So, hear goes…. I am a leader of people. Leadership Matters. Leadership saves lives.