The other week my youngest progeny took part in a high school entrepreneurship programme. For some reason that may or may not have to do with genetics and nurture, both he and his brother have a business bent and have enjoyed the various programmes put on by the Young Enterprise Scheme – a scheme that aims to immerse high school students in the world of business and give them a taste for what starting and running a business is actually like.
At the risk of sounding like a bragging father, said son did very well and, in particular, got some accolades for his role as CEO of his team. One benefit of living an hour or so out of town is the fact that commutes become an opportunity for deep discussions and on the way home from the event, we had the chance to chat about leadership in business and in other endeavours.
The lad is one of the most self-critical people I know and he was fairly dismissive of his own approach towards business leadership in the context of his team. As he saw it, faced with team members who perhaps didn’t display the level of commitment and focus that he wished to see, his reaction was simply to do everything himself. As he succinctly summarised it: “I was a pretty crap CEO, instead of getting the best out of the individual members of the team, I just powered through and did everything myself.”
I was reflecting on his words this morning, especially in the context of my own journey through leadership, and some things I’ve observed of other leaders. I waxed poetic recently about the CEO of a large New Zealand company who I observed instilling fantastic values into people (in this case his kids) at the Koru lounge. I’ve also been thinking about the leaders of technology companies that I’ve met who have walked a path that sees them go, in only a few years, from a couple of people in a spare bedroom to hundreds (and often tens of thousands) of employees.
So, was son #2 right and did he miss the memo about getting the best out of your people or was he right on task and simply doing what needed to be done and leading from the front?
As with many of the rhetorical questions I pose in my articles, this one isn’t easy. The reality is that there are only so many hours in the day and it is unrealistic to think that one leader can cover all the bases. At some point one has to rely on other people and that old adage about “hiring people that are better than you” is the key point here.
But at the same time, to really make a dent in the universe, sometimes accepting second best just isn’t an option. I’m thinking here of Thomas Edison, the person who invented the incandescent lightbulb.
But “invent” is probably the wrong word for what Edison did. The truth is he slaved away with tens, hundreds and thousands of prototypes which all spectacularly failed until he found just the right combination of factors to make a light bulb that was effective.
It’s a fair guess that, had old mate Edison followed a path of gently building a team and encouraging said team to come up with a lightbulb solution, that he would have spent much of his time managing egos and dealing with all the issues that come with them. This lack of focus on the task at hand could potentially have meant that someone else would have come up with the invention and the world would be a lesser place, missing all the Edison-related things that came to bear.
The fact is that both approaches – the maniacal self-driven one, and the more inclusive team-building one – have their place. The key is working out which to use, when.
For son #2, that learning is a work in progress and I wonder what relative success he could have achieved using one or other of the leadership approaches this year.