Leadership; You Will Know It When You See It

“I always admired a subordinate who could stand up and say ‘you said it, chief.’” – quote from a long-time entrepreneurial client

We have all had experience with leaders, and I would be the first to admit that I openly copied the leadership traits of those I admired. The above quote came from a client years ago as I was asking how he instilled the “followship” that is an important part of leadership. His backhanded comment was a reminder of the fact that without some respect (admiration and even fear), the effectiveness of a leader can be somewhat diminished.

I thought about this when I recently attended a session / presentation on leadership. A panel of successful leaders responded to questions and provided some guidance on this topic to the audience. As enlightening as it was, I was somewhat taken aback by the commonality of the message on leadership. While each took their turn at eloquently explaining what they believed a leader was, none captured more than one or two elements of what I thought made a leader. It was at that point that I realized that no definition could capture the wide range of effective leaders I have known.

What I also began to realize as I reflected on my role models was that it was an event or opportunity that allowed that person to become a leader in my eyes. It was action more than executive presence that defined them for me. While I had known most of my leaders and knew what they were capable of, it was an event that brought out their best. Two situations, both related to initial public offerings (IPO) come to mind.

If you have ever been involved in an IPO process, you know it is one of the most intense processes known to man. While not quite like sending someone to the moon, it relies on very timely coordination and execution from a diverse team to come to the right point in time where everyone can “sign off” and give the go signal. At times, that window is only open a day or two at best and if you miss it, you have to revisit the process. At the time of this decision, expectations are high as are the attendant professional fees.

In two separate cases, we were at that go or no-go point and each CEO stepped up and determined the time was not right and the deal was pulled. In one case, it was an experienced professional manager who had been through the process before, but in the other case, it was a business owner with a very unsophisticated business who saw certain parties in the process being pushed to the edge of the envelope. While he was not sure what was going on (and he had the most at risk) he sensed it was not right and stopped the presses.

Crisis, personal issues, conflicts, financial distress, loss of major customer – – I have seen various owners respond to these traumatic events, but it was the true leaders who did not let the situation control them but stepped up to show they were leaders. It was obvious to all present that they saw leadership.

So, as an owner, be prepared to show you a leader. You may in fact be a good mentor and coach to your team, but when the opportunity presents itself, be prepared to step up and do the right thing. The ultimate success of your company may depend on it.

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Entrepreneurial Loneliness – Learning to Share

“It’s lonely at the top of Olympus” – quote from Emperor Nero (Dom DeLuise) – “History of the World” – by Mel Brooks

Some would say that today, we live in the age of the entrepreneur. As someone who has been in this space for over 40 years, I must say I tend to agree. When we first formed entrepreneurial services at EY, it was considered by most to be just small business. There was no Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs back then. Each entrepreneur we met seemed to be possessed by this passion to set out to create something that big business wouldn’t (or couldn’t) do. They were the outliers; jousting at windmills and looking to accomplish the impossible. Looking back on all the innovation, financial success (can you say unicorn?) and social good, one can only say thank goodness for those early pioneers. It has been quite a ride and the juggernaut continues.

However, I see something a bit different in many of the entrepreneurs of today. While I still believe that deep down inside they want to change the world, they start out motivated by something a bit different; the ultimate vision of being their own boss. They raise questions like, “Why be creative for others?” and, “Why put up with all the office politics, infrastructure and chains which will keep me back?” Perhaps they just can’t find a job. But they love the image of that ultimate dream – – waking up in the morning and looking in the mirror and realizing you have nobody to answer to but yourself. Ah, nirvana.

So why the concern? To me there is an important part of the message of success that does not get delivered as forcefully as the image of the entrepreneur on a stage by himself or herself explaining their success to the world. Lost is the importance of the support cast. Where would Steve Jobs had been if Steve Wozniak had not been there? While every entrepreneur loves the fact that they answer to themselves, that same scenario conjures up visions of fear and uncertainty – – most feel personally responsible for the success or failure of their company. The immediate reaction is usually to do “whatever it takes” to make sure the business is successful. Learning to build a team and share some of that responsibility and “pain” with others does not come easy.

I am surprised that with all the business coaches and organizations that offer advice and the plethora (thank you “Three Amigos”) of guidance on team building that is prevalent in business media, I still get introduced (on more occasions than I care to admit) to successful business owners who believe they are on their own and who are feeling the strains of “being alone on Olympus.” My role with them sometimes morphs into a form of pseudo psychological therapy, but mainly it is just that of an objective observer offering advice that often reinforces what the entrepreneur believes but feels they cannot share with those close to them.

So please, as you build your business, find people to share your successes and your challenges – – key employees, advisory board members, advisors or peers. Many of those in your personal network are more than willing to help and support you on your journey. As the famous saying goes, “No man (woman) is an island,” and for an entrepreneur, no truer words were ever spoken.

Leadership – Can It Be That Simple?

Forget about the curve ball Ricky.  Give him the heater.” – Lou Brown, Major League

Many of us remember the movie Major League.  The lovable (sometimes cantankerous) manager Bob Brown was successful at assembling a group of ragtag veterans and misfits and driving them to win their first pennant in years.  But, what was it about Bob that made you love him and admire his leadership?

Many people say that it is difficult to define leadership (there are perhaps thousands of books on the subject) but you know it when you see it.  Now, the normal author writing on this subject would probably sight Covey, Drucker or perhaps Jobs, but trust me, I know what I’m doing.  (Author’s note – this is a shameless attempt to work in a quote from Sledge Hammer – an obscure sitcom in the late 80’s that barely lasted 2 seasons.  If you watched it, like me, you need help.)   So, let’s look at five characteristics that made Lou a great leader:

  1. Compassion – Lou took a sincere interest in his people and knew if they played together and respected each other, they would be successful.  Whether it was realizing Ricky needed glasses, Dorn had to improve at 3rd or Cerrano had to learn to hit the curve, he took the time to make each player better.
  2. Focus – Using the life-size picture of the owner Rachel Phelps and stripping off a part for each win was simple but powerful.  Players had a lot on their minds… especially as they started having success and expectations rose; but this simple visual gave them focus.
  3. Decisiveness – He made tough decisions.  Starting a veteran over a hot up-and-comer was a calculated, but appropriately calibrated, risk.  He was able to not only make the tough call but effectively explain it to those that were impacted.
  4. Passion – Lou believed in and fought for his team.  He had no problem confronting the owner over inadequate equipment or training facilities.  Everyone knew he had a desire to see the team succeed and he fought for them knowing it placed him at risk.
  5. Energy – Lou was a tireless advocate for the team and his players.

Leadership takes different forms – from the more aggressive poised and verbal leader to the strong silent type.  Effective leaders come in many flavors.  There are volumes written, courses and “self help” techniques galore on leadership.  Some people spend their lives trying to become better leaders.  If that is your passion, then as Rocky said to Clubber Lang, “Go for it!”  But, perhaps a simpler technique is to try to build these five simple traits into your role as an entrepreneur.  You may be pleasantly surprised with the results.