Every so often one of my mentoring engagements comes to focus on an essential question – one so basic that I have to stop and marvel at its simplicity and clarity. That recently happened. I was in the early stages of working with a CEO who was having problems with his senior management team. In fact, this CEO had had a series of problems with a series of senior teams. So I decided to turn our discussion directly into the issue and put the question directly to him – let’s call him Bob for convenience – “so, what makes you a leader that people should follow”?
Well, you would have thought that I had insulted his mother or threatened to kill his dog. The initial reaction was that strong. But after he got calmed down a bit – it was by luck that we were meeting at a bar – the combination of the public place and a couple of good draws on a cold drink helped him gain control over his reaction – he became aware that I was serious about my question and his that I expected an answer to it.
The first set of answers that he came up with did not stand long before they were tossed into the trash bin.
- I am the CEO:My response – “You can call yourself anything you want – congratulations – but the issue is what your team members call you. Do you become tall simply because you call yourself tall? Cut the crap and don’t insult my intelligence.”
- I own all the stock in the company: My response – “Congratulations – right now the stock is worth next to nothing and you are well on your way to removing the ‘next to’. Anybody can set up a company and become its sole stockholder – so what makes you special?”
- I brought the team together – I brought them into this and gave them the opportunity: My response: “So you are a recruiter and deserve a recruiter’s thanks. By the way things are going; you seem to have suckered them into a kamikaze raid on a vacant lot.”
Finally he just looked at me and smiled. “OK, you got me – the truth is that I have no idea why anybody would see me as a leader – let alone follow me. I am always stressing that they won’t and that all of my efforts will come to naught because of that. Most of the time I feel that I’m on my own and can’t rely on anybody.”
I took time to light my pipe and enjoy the first few draws – letting the statement sink in. After a bit I began. “Let’s talk about what it means to be a leader. Let’s ask the question ‘Why would anyone follow you?’” Bob settled back and thought about it. I sensed that he was relieved to move the question to a more abstract focus – but I also knew that his relief was going to be short lived if we were to make any useful progress. So I continued.
“You can’t get anywhere in business without engaged and committed associates. The vision of the cowboy – alone and self-sufficient – riding the range – is a useless-bordering-on-dangerous delusion for entrepreneurs. And getting sharp and competent people to commit is one of the challenges that every entrepreneur faces. Team building and management is a direct test of your maturity, self knowledge, judgment and vision. Let’s take them in order.”
Maturity: “Let’s face it Bob being an entrepreneur – I mean a builder of real businesses – is a game for adults. I’m not talking about the adolescent wannabees Bob – but the pros that have the stuff necessary to build businesses. If you still have a lot of adolescent crap to work through, you’ve got no business risking other people’s welfare on your video-game version of life. Getting people involved in a business is a serious step that will only be taken lightly by children.”
“Maturity means having slaughtered your adolescent demons and getting beyond the petty tendencies which dominated those years of your life. It also means becoming able to step beyond your ego and become aware in a new way. Let me tell you about Lew. He was a CEO in name only and came to me seeking a mentoring relationship. After talking to Lew for over an hour I turned him down. When he asked why, I told him that he needed to grow up a bit before I could work with him. That pissed him off and he became aggressive. I told him that that reaction was one of the reasons why I couldn’t work with him. The other was that he seemed to need to denigrate his team members in order to aggrandize himself – he insisted that they stoop in order to make him look like the tallest member of the team.”
“Maturity means having the mental and emotional stability to keep your balance while navigating dangerous and uncharted waters. It means being able to manage your ego and subordinate your own interests to those of your associates. It does not mean foolishly diving in to a pool before you check it for piranha. Maturity means having accepted who and what you are as a first step to being able to accept others the same way. It does not mean deluding yourself about either.”
Self-knowledge: “You’ve got to know what’s driving you and that has got to connect really well with the process of starting and growing a business. I have been consulted by people who were ‘entrepreneurs’ because they couldn’t think of anything else to do or stand the thought of working for somebody else. Some were driven by a desire to become independently wealthy and retire at an early age. Still others liked the idea that they would have lots of people working for them and would not have to do much work themselves. None of these had anything to do with the business they were in. Successful entrepreneurs know enough about their motives to avoid these traps.”
“Most good entrepreneurs live very much in the present – that is to say, they know themselves very well; have a clear idea of what would make them happy and have integrated the two into a mostly seamless vision. Because of this they are often able to offer the same consideration to others. Like maturity, self-knowledge is something that you can’t fake. If you try, any person good enough to be considered a senior team member will spot it right away and, most likely, withdraw. You can’t fake self-knowledge Bob – it is one of the easiest deceptions to spot.”
“Of course, once you do know yourself and your intentions better, you are still left with the question “should I start this business and get a lot of other people involved in it? Self-knowledge is nothing without honesty in the face of such questions.”
Judgment: “That brings me to the question of judgment. Everything you do will touch on this one. Each decision you make – not just the big ones like selecting team members – but the little ones like the selection of words and the best way to approach people – will be grist for the mill. Unless you decide to build your team with total amateurs, you are going to come under the eyes of some very perceptive people. And these people are going to watch you very carefully. That shouldn’t come as a surprise because you are asking them to risk their future on your ideas and leadership.”
“So do you walk on eggs everywhere”? Bob asked.
“No Bob, you don’t. You have to be prepared to discover that you are not going to make a good leader – no matter how much you wish you were. Yeah, that’s the short end of this – some people are leaders while others are not. Some people need a bit of seasoning before they make good leaders and some are good right out of the box. Life isn’t fair that way – but spending your life vainly trying to push string uphill is a poor reaction to the discovery that you are not a competent string pusher. You have to be yourself as you are – that is really the only viable option. Manufactured realities are virtual sinkholes.”
“Every time you face a decision your judgment will be on trial. One of the reasons that I work with young entrepreneurs like you is the opportunity to help them improve. When you have crossed a river a couple dozen times it is much easier – less stressful – than the first time you crossed it. But if you had any judgment at all you sought out an experienced guide for that first crossing. You see, Bob, your judgment also shows up in who you associate with beyond the core team.”<
“What do you mean by that?” Bob asked.
Look at your advisers – your executive coach – the members of your board of directors. All of them reflect on your judgment. If your advisory board is poorly organized and unproductive, what does that say about you and your judgment? If your board of directors is a rubber-stamp group of ‘yes-men’, what does that say about you and your judgment? What does it say about your company? Is it a real venture or just a science project parading as one?”
I could tell that I had touched a nerve and decided to move on. “Let’s talk about vision for a bit.”
Vision: “You started your business with an idea – and that idea has grown into a vision for the business. The strength of that vision and the strength of your commitment to it are two different things. For most sophisticated people your dedication will be attractive but the clarity of your vision – the substance of your ideas behind the company – will be their primary focus.”
“All of the three other ideas come together here Bob – maturity, self-knowledge and judgment – all are tested and combine to make it possible or impossible to translate that vision into a reality. There is always some precocious adolescent with a messianic complex strutting around – declaiming to the world that their idea is the next best thing since sliced bread and will change the world as we know it. Mercifully, most of these aberrations fail without causing much damage. Some have done real damage to the lives of countless others. But then messiahs don’t need to act morally – or at least only so within their own frame of reference.”
At that Bob raised his glass and smiled. “Here’s to the demise of messiahs – may they pass without excessive damage to the rest of us.”
“Here, here,” I offered in reply. “But your vision is not just a snapshot Bob – it needs to be an understanding of a process – an anticipation of the future – its challenges and how you and your team are going to overcome them. If your vision is limited to the strategic, experienced people will see the blind spot and avoid becoming involved in your team. Business is not about imaging business it is about doing business – and doing business is 95% tactical implementation and 5% strategic envisioning. Remember the old saw – ‘when it comes to warfare, amateurs talk strategy while generals talk logistics.’ When it comes to business, amateurs go on and on about things they may do while professionals set about doing things. A vision needs to include a solid plan for implementation or it is just a vagrant dream.”
Well, by that time my cigar was down to the nub – finger burning range – and our drink glasses were empty. Both of us decided that Bob had enough to think about – so we agreed to resume our conversation the following week.
© Earl R. Smith II, PhD
I provide mentoring to those who have both the courage and determination to make a truly transformational journey. My approach is heavily influenced by core principles of Zen Buddhism. I also provide advisory services to CEO and senior teams – particularly mid-market companies. I don’t offer quick fixes or follow the latest fads. If you are willing to make the long journey – if it’s time for you to come to know the person you really are and the path you should be following – if you want to start living life you were truly meant to live – then perhaps we should talk. Send me an e-mail and we can arrange a time to chat.