“I am not running for class president.”
Such was the reply from Dan Akerson during my time running corporate communications days at XO Communications. It came when I cautioned that an audience might not embrace a given company position. Akerson, a no-nonsense, iconic American CEO who would later successfully lead General Motors out of bankruptcy, said his job was “not to be loved, but to be respected.”
As I’ve led my own company for the past decade, I’ve come to truly appreciate Dan’s point of view. Opting for respect over esteem is not easy medicine, but it’s necessary. This is especially true for entrepreneurs, where growing a business requires real leadership.
Earning respect and keeping it.
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Here are a few things I’ve learned that can help along the arduous path to leadership:
- Focus on creating energy. When you’re younger, you underestimate the steepness of the path ahead and the need you’ll have for delivering maximum energy at critical times. Inexperience masks the depletion of energy along the way, thereby leaving a deficit at exactly the wrong moment.
I’ve found a few simple ways to create personal energy. Some are physical, such as proper sleep, eating smartly, and exercising between four to five times every week. Others are emotional, like having deep, meaningful friendships and relationships and having something you’re excited about -- for me, it’s writing or coaching basketball.
- Be a slave to systems. Scott Adams, the creator of the popular comic strip “Dilbert” and author of the book “ How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big,” wrote that goals are for losers -- smart people invest in systems instead. This concept was a bit jolting for me as a lifelong goal setter.
After experimenting on this, I’m now convinced he was correct. For example, I no longer set weight goals; instead, I’ve set a system of exercising at least four times a week for the rest of my life. In total, I have seven systems I’ve established for myself, including living generously by giving more than I take and staying curious (with a bias toward learning).
- Walk the floor. Abraham Lincoln spent hours each day outside of his presidential office. He visited military hospitals, went to battlefields and frequented the offices of both allies and enemies as he gathered information, perspectives, and points of view. It was his appreciation for the common man that made him recognize the value of meeting people on their own playing fields.
Leaders establish respect by meeting followers on their turf. As I walk my own building, the conversations I have in someone else’s cubicle or office are always more open and productive than those that happen in my own. I’m opened to important new perspectives as I stand in their figurative “work shoes.”
Set an alarm for every 90 minutes, and take a quick walk to one of your direct report’s workspaces for a quick check-in. Not only will it help your leadership, it will provide a nice break from sitting at your desk.
- Be decisive. There are few things more debilitating to a leader than indecisiveness. Great leaders seek and are open to opinions -- especially dissenting points of view -- but in the end, they’re expected to make decisions that move organizations forward. Get comfortable with this because leaders make decisions, even when nobody is cheering.
- Stare down loneliness. This may be the toughest of all. For those of us who actually prefer “running for class president” because of a desire for approval, the tough medicine of leadership indicates there will be times where you must stand alone.
I’ve watched this play out in person when promotions turn one of my employees from a team member into a leader. They learn quickly that there is a newfound separation from their peers that comes with the territory. Of course, they frequently step into a new peer group organizationally (which we always try to intentionally facilitate in our company), but it also makes sense to find others outside the company’s boundaries who have similar responsibilities to share thoughts, ideas, and concerns.
Dan Akerson’s leadership helped to teach me the value of being respected as a business leader. It was this lesson that guided my role as president of my company and forged the strong relationship that I have with my employees to this day.