A corporate leadership mantra: It’s not about you
Ian Lurie Aug 22 2012
I just finished reading Steve Jobs’ biography. He was an extraordinary person, but a lousy leader. That, plus some basic life lessons slowly penetrating my thick skull, made me realize:
Leadership isn’t all about you. If it is, you’re not a leader—you’re a narcissist.
“It’s not about me” is a mantra I’ve learned to repeat when:
Someone bursts into tears
The first time I witnessed this it broke my heart. We were reviewing a project crisis. I was visibly frustrated, no question about it. But there were no raised voices. No swearing. No drama. And we’d fixed the problem. What had I done to make her so upset? This was just the post-mortem.
Of course, she had more going on than this one project. And she was frustrated, too. Timing played a bigger part than I did.
It’s not a license to be an insensitive schmuck, but sometimes colleagues hit their limit, and it has nothing to do with you. Instead of stressing about what you did, be sympathetic. Hand over a tissue, or something to throw (I’ve done both for either gender).
5 minutes after I’d finished extolling the virtues of a top account strategist, she walked into my office. Sorry boss, she said, someone offered me 75% higher salary.
At that point, I had two options:
- Pull the pin in my head and explode;
- Smile and wish them well.
I started with the latter. After they left I switched to pin/explode. A few Kit Kats and a decent night’s sleep gave me more perspective, though: I couldn’t match the gigantic salary increase. Nor could I blame her for taking it.
Most important, this wasn’t part of some Universe-wide conspiracy to make my life miserable. I can do that on my own. This was one person, getting one job offer. Nothing more.
You save the day
I helped a client get back into Google’s good graces. My first impulse: Pat myself on the back and say ‘Go Ian!!!!!’
I never could’ve done the work without 30+ other people handling every other aspect of Portent’s business. Or the sanity-saving regex advice from our company expert.
Yes, you saved the day. Without a team, though, you wouldn’t have had the time.
The company loses big
Ah, the cursed project. Gotta love it. Difficult client, slow vendors, economic problems, countless screw-ups from every member of the team.
Business is personal. Failure infinitely more so. It’d be easy to rant and rave and try to fix things with an act of will.
It won’t work. Everyone on the team has to learn, improve and move on.
The company wins big
See ‘you save the day,’ above.
It’s not sinking in
I’ve poured thousands of hours into documenting what we do, mentoring and teaching. It works great about 90% of the time. The other 10%, you’re certain you’re dead, and this is punishment for all the times you ignored your parents.
If one person doesn’t get it, that’s a problem they have to fix.
If no one gets it, that’s a problem you have to fix.
The more common problem, though, is that some folks learn from you and some don’t. They’re not stupid and you’re not incompetent. Try changing teachers: Have a colleague teach, instead. A different approach by a different person can boost comprehension x10.
Everyone wants to please you
This isn’t about your ego. It’s about fulfillment and fear. Fulfillment from doing a good job; fear of not having one.
You must have high standards, and communicate them. I’m demanding as hell and I always will be. Just remember that, if you sign the paychecks, those around you want you happy. Make sure everyone understands the difference between ‘demanding’ and ‘threatening’.
PS: You’ll always fail at this. Just try to fail less each time.
When it is about you
Sometimes, it is about you:
- You set the company’s standards for quality. If you don’t care, no one does. Demand great stuff and you’ll get it.
- You’re the canary. Run in circles screaming “Oh GOD we’re all DOOMED” and chances are, everyone will follow suit.
- You establish your company’s character. Work for good karma.
- One positive or negative word from you can make/ruin someone’s day. Don’t be a butt.
That’s the sum total of my leadership knowledge, aside from stuff like ‘You still get zits.’
I’d love input, as always.
Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent Inc. He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Forbes.com and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, SIC and ad:Tech. Follow him on Twitter at portentint. He also just published a book about strategy for services businesses: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle. Read More