Rethinking Executive Leadership

Stories from three CEOs who are changing what it means to be a leader.

Image via Death to Stock.

So you’re the boss. The big boss.

There are many people, perhaps hundreds or thousands of people, looking to you to set an example, communicate expectations, and create the rules of engagement for your organization. To do that, there’s an unwritten but widely understood formula for success, right? Be decisive, know the right answer, look the part, communicate articulately, and never let anyone on your team see you make a mistake.

Our workplace cultures perpetuate these assumptions — the higher and higher you ascend in your organization, the stakes get raised, and with those higher stakes comes fear. Fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, and fear of losing the status, power, and influence you’ve worked so hard to gain.

Frontier Academy, the training and organizational development company I run, teaches a concept called “Confidence versus Certainty.” Certainty in leadership is exhibited by needing to be right; it’s a “my way or the highway” mentality. Confidence in leadership, however, is evidenced by a steadiness that allows openness and vulnerability. (Madeleine Albright once echoed this sentiment, saying that a president should be confident but not certain.) The ability to discern between the two is what makes a leader go from good to amazing, which in turn is what makes or break workplace cultures.

Here are three stories from three different CEOs who have all decided to take a different approach to redefining leadership. They’ve decided to be confident, not certain, investing in the skills and abilities of others to get a much better work product, and by extension, a vastly improved corporate culture.

Admit you suck

Lucas Mezzenga is the CEO of RBI Corporation, a distributor of outdoor equipment parts. He came into this role confident — he was sure he could shift the company’s culture mindset from a ship safe in the harbor to a ship out at sea. After all, he had a focused team, driven to grow the business despite navigating an industry rife with consolidation.

Three years in as CEO, he was stumped. The leadership team was seeing growth, but the overall culture was dark and unsustainable. As Lucas began trying to figure out the root cause, he came across an article that asked a simple, but hard, question: What is the source of your culture’s illness?

At that moment, he chillingly realized it was his own incompetence.

While Lucas pushed for growth across his team, he was doing so in a way that left little room for error. Screwing up and being vulnerable — those were signs of weakness not meant for the workplace. But, boy was he wrong. By setting unrealistic expectations, he was crushing the culture of his company.

That realization hit Lucas square in the jaw, and he finally had to admit he sucked.

What followed changed his perspective not only on leadership, it changed his way of thinking. He declared his incompetence to his team and in turn gave them permission to “suck” at their jobs, too. He began embracing mistakes; hell, he even celebrated them.

In doing so, he inspired his team to recognize the importance of contrast — that they could not truly know success without first knowing failure. This opened up a conversation amongst the team about their individual strengths, weaknesses, motivations, fears, and goals for personal growth. Suddenly, they were dealing with a newfound reality, recognizing each other as humans who were vulnerable. The conversations became more pointed and constructive, allowing the team to start supporting — and respecting — one another. This new level of response helped to create a foundation where feedback was welcome and wanted.

Admitting that we suck or are incompetent (especially as a leader) is a scary thing to do, but it’s undoubtedly the right one, and Lucas has proven it.

“There’s a powerful transformation when we consciously admit that we’re not good at something,” he said. “And adopting a mindset of embracing mistakes frees the mind from concern and fear and opens the door to curiosity and creativity. This is where great work and great fun comes from.”

Let go

As CEO of one of the most successful Midas franchises in the country, Mark Smith is taking another approach to defying the leadership myth.

Focused on growing his franchises, he fell into the all-too-common entrepreneurial rat race of scaling quickly, adding more and more people to his team to keep up. Soon, he found himself surround by a lot of talent, but no time to actually think or fully delegate appropriate tasks.

He did this for almost 15 years before he realized this wasn’t the best recipe for success. So he took a step back and spent a considerable amount of time and energy assessing his business strategy, the talents of the people on this team, and future growth opportunities, narrowing the seemingly endless list of things he knew he needed to fix himself to what he calls “The Five”: people, customer acquisition, customer experience, community, and operations. Everything else? He coached his leadership team to handle.

He’s now had three years to think and reflect more about that time in his company’s story and how it’s affected his leadership style.

“The first few months were a struggle,” Mark said, “as old habits die hard. But now everyone on my team has a better grasp of roles and responsibilities and who owns specific outcomes.”

Since that transformational experience, his franchise’s top line has grown 23 percent and the bottom line 35 percent. His stores have the largest per unit volumes of any in the Midas system, and one of his stores is the top-grossing Midas store in the world.

It’s not just business success — Mark has made a mark (ha ha) as a CEO who cares about the community in which he lives, partnering with a local nonprofit to help feed the city’s most vulnerable populations.

He has evolved into a visionary leader, with a sky-is-the-limit attitude and a tremendous heart, and he was able to unleash this potential by not only admitting he couldn’t do it all, but by focusing on what he was uniquely qualified to do then coaching his team to step up and take the rest. Together, they’ve risen to the challenge and built an unstoppable company.

Understand the potential of a true team

The last story is mine. I had one of those humbling learning moments several years ago at a conference for CEOs, where one of the keynote speakers said something to the effect of: “You need every single person on your team to get the work done, and if you think you’re more important than any one of those people, then you are sorely mistaken.”

I knew then I was making a mistake. In my defense, my company has always been a relatively flat organization, and I’ve always greatly appreciated the contributions of all my employees. But similar to Mark’s story, I had found myself reaching a point where I believed I was the one holding it all together. I mean, they needed me to hold it all together. Right?

That keynote forced me to realize how deeply dependent we all were on the entire team, not just me. What a jerk I had been, feeling I was so important. I wasn’t. What I needed to do was get out of the way and let the amazing people I had hired do their work and shine.

By reframing the perception I had of my team and viewing them as equals — in it together and fighting for one another — we’ve not only succeeded but have soared. I, like most CEOs, very clearly do not have all the answers. In fact, there is more that goes on in my business that I don’t know about than I do. And that feels great. My team is amazing and I trust them as much as I trust myself to do an awesome job. They feel it. And together we continue to build.

Outdated executive stereotypes hold leaders back. They stifle growth, learning, vision, and teamwork — all the elements we know we need to grow amazing companies, solid teams, and enviable workplace cultures. What moves leaders forward? Confidence — not certainty — that you’re an able leader.

So, here’s your opportunity: how will you redefine leadership to get the best results for your organization?


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