“Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
I felt compelled to write this article after witnessing different examples of leadership in multiple different countries. I am extremely fortunate to have traveled to over thirty countries and worked in five. I have noticed a recent trend in business which is that founders and C-Suiters are neglecting honesty and favoring a selfish, capitalistic approach. I feel like a lot of leaders of companies in the US (and around the world) need to take a moment to reflect on their own actions and be more honest and transparent.
I’m not sure if you have seen the UK version of the TV show The Apprentice but the boss Alan Sugar would always ask the team members “good leader?” referring to the leader of the challenge. That is what I always imagine when I am doing anything in business. If that question was posed to my team, would they respond yes? If not, how could I lead better?
In 2008 when I realized I was not destined to climb the corporate ladder as an employee but rather build companies, I asked a handful of entrepreneurs and startup founders what successful leaders actually did. The most common response was simple:
Leaders always take the first step forward even if they have to later take two steps back. They don’t go for quick wins. They play the long game. They might start small but they are always growing as human beings and learning daily to improve. Well, the good ones anyway!
As with employees, there are many different types of leaders. Here are the ones I have experienced:
1). The ‘Climb Aboard, The Bullet Train Is Leaving’ Leader
Gung-ho in their style, these kind of leaders are high energy. They rely on their high pressure sales pitches to get people on the team. When I was working in Melbourne, Australia doing door-to-door sales, we would always start the day at the office. House music would be playing loud to get people pumped up. People would be practicing their sales pitches. If you’ve ever seen some of the characters in The Wolf of Wall Street or Glengarry Glen Ross, you’ll know what I’m talking about. My boss would take the stage and use metaphors and inspiring monologues so that the impossible would become possible in our minds:
“Some days you’re going to knock on one hundred doors and get a sale at the first one. Other days, it might take until the one hundredth door to get your sale. But the law of averages says the sales are always there.”
What I later realized was that despite the motivating speeches, he was running a pyramid scheme and when I was walking through an area of Downtown Melbourne after one of the pep talks and saw him dining at a fine restaurant while drinking wine, I knew his act was a façade. You have probably seen similar approaches with companies like Bitcoin or Snapchat where the leaders are trying to convince you to bet on something you might not even understand. If Warren Buffett says walk, give it a second look!
2). The ‘I’m Going To Change The World But First I’m Going To Change Your Life’ Leader
Also known as the transformational leader. In this instance, the leader’s passion and purpose is to transform others. This usually applies to motivational speakers or life coaches. They want to transform you to be the optimal and fulfilled version of yourself. In addition, they will often see that in transforming you, they are also helping you to transform others. I have seen leaders do this where their mission is to benefit the world through education and improved health standards. I have also seen others abuse this in religion where they are taking weak minds and manipulating them.
If you are a transformational leader, use your superpowers to positively impact the world. We need you the most right now.
3). The ‘Laissez-Faire Mi Casa Es Su Casa’ Leader
Laissez-faire means “let it be” in French. Hands off and very relaxed, these leaders trust that you can do your best work without them babysitting you. In startups especially, I have witnessed this where leaders are either never there to inspire or so chilled out that you get an sense of over familiarity. The creative industry is where I have seen this style applied the most. A creative mind needs freedom to wander and express itself.
4). The ‘Let’s Have A Meeting For No Apparent Reason’ Leader
Also known as the bureaucratic leader, they love rules, regulations and meetings. Spontaneity has been sacrificed and in its wake, predictability reigns supreme. Want to get an idea approved? Wait for the “we’ll push that through the appropriate channels” line to be recited to you. In a large corporation, these leaders are favored by boards and shareholders because they are looking for consistent returns. Put a leader like this in a startup, and it will almost certainly go bust within a year.
I once worked in a company in London where twenty people sat down, got their pens and paper ready to take notes and then the leader said with a confused look on their face, “what is this meeting for again?” You could have heard a hamster sneeze. Total morale crusher.
5). The ‘Screw The Customer We’re Going To Make Billions Leader’
When Uber’s Founder and CEO Travis Kalanick was removed from the company he started, most startup founders would blame the greedy investors or corrupt board. But when you look at the leaked emails, videos and feedback from employees, you see a corrosive leader who is seemingly out of their depth. This approach might work early on when you are off the radar but the second the mass media are in your back pocket, everyone is watching.
I have seen this time and time again in the startup world. Founders going for the quick win instead of focusing on the long game. The temptation of getting quick money from investors to scale a shell of a business, IPO it and cash out faster than the guy who just beat the house in Las Vegas, is too strong for many. They want to win fast, win big then retire. Their reputation in business takes a back seat.
6). The ‘Let’s All Live On Mars’ Leader
Totally eccentric and unbelievable…until you find yourself on a one-way trip to Mars, these leaders have the intelligence and vision to back up their words. Elon Musk is probably the guy who springs to mind and he has done an amazing job of coming to a foreign land, getting a few successes under his belt and changing the world.
The thing that he does which is rare though is he goes far beyond the typical goals of most founders. He takes us as far as we can imagine. It is currently impossible for space tourism on Mars but Musk lets us believe the unbelievable can happen. On the flipside, Musk recently had a bout of “Kalanick-itis” and is skating on thin ice at the moment with Tesla following a rather unusual conference call with investors.
There is a thin line between genius and insanity. There are leaders who have the imagination but not the knowledge or execution to back it up. When you hear a pitch about time travel, that is normally when the credibility line is crossed.
What are your thoughts on honest leadership?
Do you have any examples of it in your work life?
What can leaders do to be even more honest?