I’ve been exposed to a number of fine executives lately, from A. Ray Smith, owner of the astonishingly successful Louisville Redbirds, the minor-league baseball team that draws 800,000 fans a year, to Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer, now Maryland’s Governor-elect. Their surprisingly similar passions and obsessions match with my observations of exceptional leaders in general. A dozen traits (and their antitheses) stand out.
1. Notetakers/Learners. These people learn from any setting. They take notes obsessively. The reverse is bored arrogance: “This doesn’t apply to us.” “Our industry (city, etc.) is different.” “What can a report by a sixth level person possibly tell me?”
2. Constant Improvement. No idea is too small for this bunch. They are starving for thousands of tiny improvements. The flip is those who relentlessly seek the “big idea,” the shortcut to success. Big ideas are fine, don’t get me wrong, but the quest for them is a poor substitute for the back-breaking effort involved in getting better—inch-by-inch and day-by-day.
3. Pleasure in others’ efforts. Many claim that unlimited success awaits those who don’t feel the need to hog credit. Our best leaders live this. They delight, publicly and sometimes with tears in their eyes, at the success of others—from on high or from the bowels of the organization. The losers find no good idea too small to claim as their own. Or they exhibit gross indifference, callously walking past an employee’s superhuman effort, without a hint of interest.
4. Details. These leaders seem to know, indeed revel in knowing, every detail of their operation. Their only mischievous tendency is one-upping subordinates with their knowledge of detail. The others espouse a “big-picture” view, and literally seem to pride themselves in not knowing the details of a new system or piece of equipment.
5. Vision. Despite their fanaticism for detail, our stars have a simple, compelling and crystal-clear vision. It’s emotional. It’s graphic. It’s very succinct, the essence of strategy. The opposite is what I call the “planning mentality”: “Of course, I have a vision. It’s all in this (200-page) strategic plan, right here.” But you can’t ever get this bunch to talk about their dream. One suspects they don’t dream.
6. Listen. Though these leaders occupy exalted spots, they seem to have infinite time to listen, to the individual citizen, to the newly hired mailroom clerk. Perhaps they are genuinely interested! The opposite of this is the tuned-out look or air of stiff formality; or the need to talk in any setting.
7. Out of the office. Star leaders understand that the action takes place on the street, in the plant, in the distribution center at 2:00 a.m., in the design room at 4:00 a.m. And they are there, curious, and with their finger on the pulse. The others believe that managers are paid to manage. And managing takes place in the office or committee room. After all, we spent scads on outfitting an office, let’s use it—if only to justify the $27,000-bill for the Persian carpet.
8. Rapt attention. The best leaders have a way of making the person they’re with, at any level, feel like the most important human being in the world for the five or 35 minutes they are with her or him—as if they had nothing else to do. The bozos, on the other hand, seem to have the attention span of a gnat. They jump in and out of meetings. I’ve even seen some
read mail during a presentation. It’s clear that you, the subordinate, are a small potato in the very important world that they inhabit.
9. Passionate hatred of bureaucracy. The better leaders are unsparing in their hatred for Mickey-Mouse rules and political posturing that delays action. “Lawyers be damned, do something,” is their cry. The rest see the rules as the essence of the properly run firm. They are memo writers. They even laud well-written memos they receive—sending memos to that effect.
10. Focus. The world is complicated, yet the stellar performers home in on a tiny handful of issues or parameters that allow them to accurately judge progress toward achieving their vision. The two or three “closely watched numbers,” about which they are obsessive, are not perfect indicators. But they define priorities in unmistakable terms. The losers wallow in thousands of indicators that may capture the world’s daunting complexity; however, there is no observable pattern to their concerns. They live 273 top priorities, sowing confusion about what’s important at every step of the way.
11. Love of the product or service. These heroes are like unrepentant kids. They are emotional, gleeful about what they sell. They love banking or carpets or computers. The rest exhibit the analytic detachment that befits the B-School’s textbook boss. They have not been observed to smile for decades. They are grim “professionals,” and darned proud of it.
12. Agony. No blemish is small to our role models. Their firms may be huge, but they palpably agonize over the slightest lapse in quality or service or treatment of people. They uncannily sniff out little problems; their networks within and outside the organization are awesome. The contrast is the “leader-as-statistician,” who believes, “Things will go wrong. It’s the laws of statistics.” As long as the number of foul-ups is within “acceptable limits,” we shouldn’t sweat it.
I find these traits in leaders at all levels, in all sorts of firms—public and private, high tech and low. How do you measure up?
(c) 1986 TPG Communications.
All rights reserved.