The Art of Leadership
By Samuel Moore-Sobel
As promised, I’m back this month with more thoughts about leadership.
I just finished the book How to Lead by David Rubenstein. The author is a leader – a lawyer turned entrepreneur who founded the private equity firm, The Carlyle Group. “Sometimes lightning strikes for those who take chances,” he writes.
In his book, Rubinstein interviews leaders across professions, including business, government, entertainment, and the arts. Reading about this assortment of leaders at the top of their fields is a fascinating journey. Seeing the commonalities between what they cite as contributing to their success is especially insightful.
I was struck by a number of key takeaways. First is the role of risk-taking in a leader’s success. Whether climbing the corporate ladder or striking out on their own, nearly all of those interviewed took calculated risks in their careers. Getting the timing right is also important. “I read that entrepreneurs tend to start their companies by the age of thirty-seven,” Rubinstein writes, “and after that age individuals are much less likely to start companies.”
Second, being a great leader doesn’t require exhibiting strong leadership skills from a young age. “You have to have some innate skills, but it [leadership] can certainly be learned,” Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google/Alphabet said. He cited the importance of specializing and being exemplary in one area. “I don’t think it matters where you start, but you need to be incredibly good at that one thing and then broaden your skills,” Schmidt said. After that, there is no limit to what can be achieved. “Discipline, hard work, and loving what you do will get you very far.”
A desire to keep learning and growing is also required for a leader. “I have always had the viewpoint that every situation is a learning opportunity,” Ginni Rommetty, former Chairman, President and CEO of IBM said. She cites this as an important quality she looks for in hiring potential candidates. “When we hire, we look for a propensity to learn,” she said. After all, no matter how far you travel in life, there is always more to learn.
I was also struck by the importance of remaining accessible to the people you are leading, even in senior positions at large companies. The bigger the company, the more likely it is for employees to feel disconnected and unknown. Indra Nooyi, former Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, tried to mitigate this effect by sharing her personal life with her employees. “Occasionally I write very personal letters to the employee base as a whole,” she said. “I want them to know me as a person rather than just an executive.”
Somewhat counterintuitively, being a great leader is not so much about what you do, but about the people you choose to join you. “You don’t dictate to people,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said.
“But if you let them know what your vision is, hire the best people, and then don’t get in their way, those are the qualities of a good leader.” This is a sentiment I’ve tried to espouse with my own team. Knowing when to listen is just as important as knowing when to speak. “When you are in a room with really talented people, you don’t make many suggestions…you lead by example,” Lorne Michaels of SNL fame said.
I once had a mentor tell me that to be a great man, it is important to remain humble. I believe the same applies to being a leader. No one is drawn to arrogance. “Most importantly, I think great leaders have a sense of humility about what they can achieve,” former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said. Which leads to the importance of preparing for a smooth transition.
All good leaders know that no matter the field, they will not be in the job forever. The important part is ensuring that the organization can go on, no matter who holds the top job. It would serve leaders well to espouse a similar attitude to that of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who told Rubinstein, in reference to how the Supreme Court justices interact, “All of us revere the institution for which we work, and we want to leave it in as good shape as we found it.”
Samuel Moore-Sobel is the author of “Can You See My Scars?” His book is available on Amazon. To find out more, visit www.samuelmoore-sobel.com