No two businesses are exactly alike. Even businesses in the same sector with similar models are often quite different places. This also means that no two executives are exactly alike. You may be an executive in a small business with a flat corporate structure with very few employees. You may be in a large company with a corporate structure that your attorneys don’t even understand. You may be the executive who wears a suit and tie every day or the executive who comes to the office in shorts and sandals. Either way, you are responsible to lots of people. Oftentimes we like to think that there are lots of people who are responsible to the executive. This is true; however the responsibility flows both ways. If you make a major blunder, many people will suffer. If you hit a home run, many people will benefit.
Much is written about the leadership role of the executive. The executive as leader, teacher, coach, parent figure and general are just a few of the analogies used to talk about what it is like to be an executive. Let’s explore a few of these for a few minutes.
Much has been written about the qualities of executive leadership. We all want to be the leader who inspires the company to be innovative, to win customer loyalty and to create widening profit margins. Are you the kind of person who likes to lead? Are you the kind of person people will follow?
Those of us who love sports like the idea of being the head coach of a winning team. We see the executive as the person on the side lines calling the plays, making the substitutions, arguing with the referees and ultimately getting the ice water bucket dumped on our head.
Many times we feel like a parent who nurtures, nudges and harangues our direct reports to help them become independent, productive and well adjusted contributors to our company family. Some people respond very well to concern, tough love and guidance coming from their superiors at work. Other people who come from less than well adjusted families sometimes carry their dysfunctional tendencies into the workplace when they feel like their executives are trying to parent them. But as an executive, you have to take into account that people like to feel a part of a family. If you do not factor this in to your structures and practices, you will miss an important component of running your business.
The business executive as General is a potent analogy. There is power in the vision of the heroic general leading the troops across the field sending the enemy fleeing in every direction. In some practical senses, the general and the executive are in similar circumstances. There is a huge goal, a daunting challenge and many people and resources to direct. Although unlike the general, there are many times an executive does not need to engage the enemy. One can run a very successful enterprise without ever directly competing with others in your sector. I don’t believe any military school has ever taught the strategy of ignoring the enemy and carrying on without regard to any other troops in the field.
There are a few other analogies I like, too. The tribal chief, the sculptor and the dog trainer.
The tribal chief is a good analogy in my book because the tribal chief stands because of a mix of loyalties, earned respect, well-wielded power and mystical forces beyond our understanding. When someone is born into a tribe, they are raised to have a sense of allegiance to the tribe, its elders and its chief. As we bring new people into our organizations, we need to foster these feelings of loyalty. Selling our brand, our brand philosophy and our way of doing business all help new employees and established employees feel good about the loyalty they give the company. The company is the tribe. If you can establish rituals, routines and ways of doing things that are uniquely yours, you build the tribal feelings your company will need to thrive. Feeling a part of a company and feeling a part of a business tribe are two very different things.
No Tribal chief can maintain his or her position by loyalty alone. Earned respect is what enforces loyalty and deepens it. Respect is earned by making tough decision and then dealing with the consequences openly and honestly. It is earned by making good decisions…and a lot of them. It is earned by making bad decisions and then recognizing the error and adjusting quickly. It is earned by taking personal risks and not just risking everyone else. Respect is earned by doing the things others are unwilling to do or lack the courage to do.
Well wielded power is the ultimate respect builder. Knowing when to act and how much power to wield is the art of the science. If your tribal members feel that you use your power with a sense of fairness and justice, without being too tough or too weak, you build major amounts loyalty. This is the stuff legends are made of. Pick any business leader you want, whether the leader of a small company or a mammoth company and look at them as tribal leaders. Where did they lead the tribe well? Where did they fail the tribe?
When the chief can maintain loyalty, earn respect and wield power well, there becomes a mystical quality to their leadership. This is because few people have the ambition, the determination or the learning ability to master all of what it takes to lead a tribe well. Because so few can rise to the top, the tendency is to place a mystical quality to their leadership. When this is taken with a grain of salt or two, it can become a healthy admiration for the qualities of leadership. The tribal chief who does the job well finds new ways to protect the tribe from exterior threats and new ways to help the tribe prosper. It was a tribal chief who helped the first nomads plant crops and herd goats. This prosperity increases the perception of mystical powers.
The danger in this is when an executive takes himself or herself too seriously and actually believes he or she possesses some mystical powers. That’s when the whole thing unravels. This was about the time in the tribe, when the chief was killed, exiled or deposed. Or this was the time the chief pilfered all that belonged to the tribe, thinking it was his own personal booty.