Wearing Two Hats: Master and Servant

I was honored to spend 30 minutes recently talking with Howdy Holmes, the former Indy 500 racer and current CEO of Jiffy Mix. During the conversation he said something that really struck me as a core disconnect in many organizations- "ownership does not equal leadership." He was speaking in reference to family businesses, Jiffy Mix is one, but I realized it had applications well beyond family businesses. It's a problem most owner led businesses have. Most owners believe that the fact that they own the business means they are de-facto leaders. But leadership and ownership are two distinct roles, two hats often worn by the same individuals. This creates the opportunity for all kinds of confusion.

This is something I continually struggle with, balancing these two roles, wearing these two hats. As I see it, my job as CEO of SmallBox is to serve the company but as an owner I expect the company to serve me- creating meaning, wealth and opportunities for me and my family. So in the first instance I am a servant and in the former I am a master. 

I think most business owners don't see a separation of roles. They see the company as something serves them. They have a master mentality at all times. This manifests in the choices they make as a leader. 

The easiest way to observe this is in how owner-leaders use their time. An owner-leader that has a servant mentality looks to align their time with the needs of the organization and conversely one with a master mentality looks to have the organization align around their needs. Either behavior sends powerful signals across an organization. The primary byproduct of the behavior is that employees begin to mimic it. 

Consider this- which behavior do you want employees to mimic? I think most owner-leaders want their employees to mimic the servant mentality- serving the needs of the organization, putting the organization, and its customers, first. They want employees to have a "we" over a "me" mentality. But when owner-leaders exhibit "me first" thinking they create the unintended by-product of employees who mimic that thinking and behavior. The result is a company where everyone is looking out for themselves, collaboration and innovation languish and overall results disappoint. An ironic outcome. 

From Superhero to Servant

Theory: the leadership traits that can benefit startups are often the same traits that limit growth later on. 

Here's my thinking:

Startups benefit from agile, spontaneous leaders who quickly pivot when business models are challenged. I've been this kind of leader and it's an addictive buzz. So addictive that many leaders get trapped in that startup mentality which may well serve a startup but...

Mature organizations benefit from consistent, focused leaders who stick to the plan. Leaders that set aside their ego and do whatever is needed to serve their organization. This is when leaders must transform from superheroes to servants. Often this transformation requires them saying and doing the same things over and over. As Patrick Lencioni says in The Advantage: CEOs should consider themselves CROs- Chief Reminding Officers.

Being a servant isn't what most leaders signed up for. Being a servant doesn't sound very exciting. Sounds boring and, well, it can be. Like meditation, its meaning appears after you push through the skin of boredom and resist distraction (shiny objects). There is deep meaning and value in service but it requires leaving behind the ego and trappings of the superhero. What makes it harder is that these traits seemed so invaluable during the early days of a business.

Most leaders are easily bored. Many probably have ADD (guilty). They are like jazz musicians, always improvising. I'm one of the worst offenders. Routine is painful to creative people and most leaders are creative. That's often why they became leaders- they are creative problem solvers and most businesses begin by finding problems to solve. But message improvisations can mutate like a game of telephone as they echo through a growing organization. 

This is why I believe that the biggest threat to healthy, sustainable growth is bored leadership. Successful, sustainable companies do not allow themselves to become victims of distracted leaders but instead insist that these individuals serve the company. 

Saying and doing the same thing over and over is hard, really hard. But I believe, 100% believe, that is the difference between good and great organizations. 

Mastering the art of repetition must be the main work of leadership. I emphasis "art" because if there is no art to repetition, bored leadership will lead to an erosion of passion which is cancer to a healthy organization. Finding the art in repetition is no easy thing, I am still a ways off, but the more I practice the more meaning I find.

Conclusion: leaders must change their agility/consistency mix as their company matures.

Struggling With Vulnerability

I hate feeling vulnerable. It makes me feel weak and exposed. Everyone probably feels the same I guess. When I was in 2nd grade I had one of those harrowing choir experiences, you know, where the teacher makes everyone do a solo in front of the class. I was terrified and completely froze. I don't know if I've ever felt that intensity of horror since. So I've known early on that vulnerability isn't native to me in any way. 

When you start a business it can help to appear invulnerable. You want to look confident to potential clients and employees, give off the vibe that you are here to stay. But over time a business is actually better served by a vulnerable leader- one that can take input, ask for help, admit weaknesses. There are some companies that thrive under charismatic, invulnerable leaders but they rarely survive them. 

Personally, I do not want to build companies that exist to serve me. I want to build companies that serve a real purpose. A purpose that has a positive impact on the world and also inspires others to become employees and customers. And yes, a purpose that empowers the company to make money. But to serve a purpose I have to become vulnerable. You cannot serve something or someone without becoming vulnerable. 

Being vulnerable doesn't mean constantly doubting yourself. In fact it can sweep away the shadows of doubt- nudging a difficult topic into the open for honest assessment and proper assignment. Being vulnerable can create similar emotions to feeling weak but I've been surprised to see how much strength comes from displaying vulnerability. It's a paradoxical thing. 

Vulnerability is a first cousin to love, that touchy feely emotion we often try to keep out of the workplace. But we all know that love can do that magic math where 1+1=3. The same thing goes with vulnerability. It usually leads to a byproduct that is greater than its parts- whether it be a new level of understanding, deeper friendships, greater collaboration, etc. We tap into our super powers when we become vulnerable. Unfortunately we have spent most of our lives, and humankind's evolution, fighting vulnerability for survival's sake. There is much to unlearn.

So I continue to struggle with vulnerability. I know the more vulnerable I become the closer I will be to realizing my potential- personally and professionally. My fear of vulnerability is what is standing between me and that potential. I hope someday to become that fully realized person but for now I continue to struggle. 

Steve Jobs, the Luddite

Lately I've found myself imagining what Steve Jobs would have done had he lived. I think we have all engaged in this mostly useless mental activity. So my "Steve Jobs Simulator" keeps arriving at a surprising outcome: Jobs living to denounce the very technology he helped create. Yes, my highly accurate simulator, after numerous simulations, all reviewed by a team of peers, produces (drum roll): Steve Jobs, the Luddite

Consider his Buddhist leanings and semi-Zen nature. What if he came to believe that his attempt to create "insanely great" products had resulted in legions of digital addicts who had traded the wideness of "real" life for a tiny screen? What if he became convinced that humans were not meant for constant digital connectivity? Is it really that far out to consider he might have wanted to clean the temple and destroy the very empire, Apple, that he built? Ok, it's pretty far out but wasn't Steve kinda far out too?

More and more I wonder if we may come to a similar "simulated" conclusion, that we aren't built to run at this speed. Our physical OS can't handle constant digital connectivity, it disrupts our normal rhythms. Or maybe we will evolve in ways we can only imagine now. Regardless, things are about to get interesting. Too bad Jobs isn't around, he would have made it even more interesting, one way or another. 

Watch Your Language

If you want to communicate with someone it is a lot easier when you are both speaking the same language.  This goes well beyond “English”. It has to do with a group of people collectively working to redefine words to have specific, contextual meanings. This is why “touch”, “phone” and “search” mean something so radically different now compared to 20 years ago. People came together and gradually redefined these common words. They could have made new words but it’s more effective to iterate on existing words.

I have observed that successful organizations are very purposeful about language. They work to select and re-define their common vocabulary. Often this starts with leadership but it must be a team effort. A language unused becomes jargon.

A common language acts like an OS for a team. It’s a platform that enables agility, communication, delegation and accountability. Projects and systems can run on that platform.

Language must start at the top. If the boss doesn’t speak the team language then it won’t stick. I’m learning this myself- I really need to watch my language.