Story Time: The Courage to be an Exceptional Leader

It was a dark and stormy night… Okay, not exactly. But it is story time about an executive coaching client, one of the most courageous leaders I’ve ever met.

This is the story about a CEO who had never had a boss before, and so he didn’t have a model to base his leadership style on. Most leaders have had years of working for others, managing at lower levels, learning through trial and error, and having numerous role models to learn from. Not Sam (and also not his real name).

Sam came from a different world, one unlike corporate America. He developed his expertise in areas other than management, leadership, strategic planning, finance, and all those other things it takes to build a company. But that’s just what he did – built a company from the ground up. While he did not have experience in starting a business, he did have a unique knowledge that provided the perfect jumping off point to found and launch a company, plus provide a much-needed product to the public.

A few years after starting the company, he made the decision that he needed to be an exceptional leader. Not just a good leader, not just a great leader, but an exceptional leader. That’s just the way Sam is. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity of coaching him on his journey towards exceptionality.

What made Sam different than many leaders was his willingness to hear what others said about him, to take feedback in stride, and to not feel threatened by criticism. He was incredibly open and accepting, and this lead to improvements. It took courage to listen to what others said about him, to hear the criticism aimed his way. Where many in his position would have stamped his feet and said, “That’s the way I am, so get used to it,” Sam listened.

Sam did not take every criticism to heart and bend to every one, although it did seem that way to some. In fact, he was accused of following the “management trick of the week.” But this was part of the process, part of him finding his style, part of his journey. Much like painters copy the works of the masters for a period of time until they develop their own style, Sam did try a few different approaches. Some were uncomfortable at times for him.

At one time we talked about the charismatic, strong (some would say dictatorial) leadership styles of Jack Welch, Steve Balmer, Steve Jobs, and others. Sam wondered if he needed to be more that way. We also talked about the many leaders reported on by Jim Collins in his Good To Great book, and how they were often near-opposite of those just mentioned. He wondered if he needed to be more like them.

Eventually, Sam found that he needed to be authentic. He needed to be himself, and have the courage to trust that he could be the exceptional leader he wanted to be without having to act like someone he wasn’t. Eventually, Sam discovered his leadership style.

With little to no experience in various situations, Sam had to trust someone or something. In time, he learned to trust the only thing he could: himself and his gut. At the same time, many people were pulling him in differing directions to make decisions that suited them. Time and time again, when Sam listened to his intuition, he made the best decision. But it wasn’t easy to do that when he had so little to base these tough decisions on; it would have been easier to follow the advice of others.

Sam is an exceptional leader. Does that mean he’s reached his goal? He would be the first to reply, “Absolutely not!” Why? Because Sam knows that being an exceptional leader means never settling for where you are today. He knows that to be an exceptional leader, he must constantly look to be even better tomorrow than he was today; to listen and learn from others; to trust his instinct, and drive himself and his team to levels unseen in the past; to be open to criticism; to look inward and question his own abilities; and to be courageous.

Had Sam not been courageous enough to listen to what others said about him, he would not be the exceptional leader he is today. He’s not perfect, but he is exceptional.

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3 Responses to “Story Time: The Courage to be an Exceptional Leader”

  1. limewire says:

    shoot cool story man.

  2. When it comes to managing people effectively, the atmosphere and type of work environment often means you have to “switch” your leadership style in to a different gear. Good leaders can do this instinctively; they understand what needs to be done and the people they are leading.