Business Growth & Strategy

Elevating Leadership: Showing a Heart of Gold and a Spine of Steel

Recently I received an interesting email from my good friend Cory, a senior sales leader in the solar industry.  He attached an article — “The Secrets of Bezos: How Amazon Became the Everything Store” published by Bloomberg Business Week on October 10, 2013.

Cory commented: “This article makes an interesting case for having an exacting standard and using a ‘bit of fear’ as a good management tactic to grow a large company.”

I read the article, and immediately started thinking that there might be another approach that’s more effective than managing by fear, intimidation and argument. These traits tend to cluster in cultures like Bezos – and rather than propelling the “average company” forward, this management fear and intimidation style continually pulls “the average firm” backward.

A CEO Opens Up About His Certainty

Last week while meeting with a consulting prospect, the company’s Co-Founder/CEO told me with a big grin, “I’m arrogant, because we have the best medical products in our niche … and I’m also the best engineer around.” He was openly argumentative as well and seemed to enjoy taking this bold stance in business as well as in life.

He then bragged about being publically arrogant and argumentative several times with that same genuine grin on his face. He confided that this attitude would help propel his company to become one of the largest in his space.  So I asked “I’m just curious, what is the basis of your data point – where did you learn this?”

Elevating Leadership: Showing a Heart of Gold and a Spine of SteelWith a gentle and supportive response, I shared that my perspective is different.  Referencing how a few of the companies I’ve worked with has taught me when the CEO is arrogant and argumentative – the sales people in front of customers will be arrogant and argumentative. And, when the purchasing folks are in front of suppliers – they too will be argumentative. This behavior then comes full circle … so when the CEO has internal discussions, his team becomes arrogant and argumentative with him.

By now it was obvious that no one talks to him this way; his whole body language changed.  He sat forward with interest.  My point continued that because his employees, who are loyal and love him (professionally) want to please him, they will copy his behavior. I mentioned how “a company is a Rorschach Test” of the top leader, meaning the senior leader’s good and not-so-good qualities are mirrored by the employees … because your people want to please you.

Allowing Our Management Style to Shift to the Next Level

At this point I said there was a time when I was arrogant and argumentative too, until about 10 years ago when I worked with Ann Iverson, the former CEO of Laura Ashley. We met when Ann was part of the Kitchen Cabinet we recruited to develop and externally validate the growth path for a Waterford Wedgwood subsidiary to take sales from $20M to $65M and after-tax profit from 2-17.5% within 3 years.

As we worked together, Ann was clearly my superior. I observed something in Ann I’d never experienced before in a top executive. She was elevating leadership,she had both a “heart of gold” and a “spine of steel”…while she was always personable, kind and supportive.  Actually, someone you would invite over for dinner to meet your family. She was also no non-sense and highly demanding in business.  Ann insisted that the job be done right or you would hear plenty from her.

That’s when it dawned on me that I also shared this philosophy, and that these 2 opposite management skills of heart and spine can co-exist, even when they might seem contradictory. This was one of my personal ‘A-Ha’ moments. It was obvious that team members will walk through a wall of fire to get their part of the job done for a great leader like Ann. It was a tipping point in my life, and changed me forever.

The CEO Leadership Elevates to a Higher Level

As I recounted this insight, the medical device Founder/CEO began to relax.  I continued that the most successful leaders I’ve known, like Ann Iverson, liquefy the barriers between people and departments to   avoid creating walls. This results in businesses – especially large companies – being built on supportive trust, since trust happens where walls don’t exist. That’s just how it works.

Bringing the discussion full circle, I nudged the Founder/CEO to re-think his company strategy and try not to copy newspaper headlines from wunderkind firms that shoot to success like Apple or Amazon as his management style.  Let us not forget, the wise Peter Drucker astutely reminds us that companies need to be built for average managers and average employees, because most of us are average.

Marquee firms like Amazon with splashy big news headlines and rocket growth are the exceptions. They’re, led by very gifted and unusual individuals who are truly and positively exceptional.

As the CEO and I were finishing our lunch meeting, it was something to see the CEO palpably become more comfortable in his own skin. He admitted to me that underneath, he too had a big heart for his people and he had been struggling with how to comingle his genuine big heart with his drive to excel in business. Rather than a handshake, he gave me a hug afterwards, which I took as a very good sign that his leadership gift could be brought to light.

But Who In the Average Company Is Ever a Steve Jobs Or Jeff Bezos?

It rarely happens.  This leaves 99.99% of the rest of us to manage the way that works for the average manager and average employee in the average company, using exactly the art and science of leadership that Ann Iverson practices as a world-class builder of businesses.

So Cory, that’s my two cents … what do you think?

Category: Business Growth & Strategy Communication & Alignment Leadership


About the Author: Chas Klivans

Chas Klivans combines his survival experiences in hostile territory and careers as a Founder/CEO, Turnaround Expert, and Psychotherapist int…

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