The Solo Art of Great Leadership

Owning all responsibility for your outcomes is the most important trait of a Great Leader.  When you choose this lonely life, you raise your hand and say, “Okay, I’m the leader. I’m the one to follow.  We rise together now, or I’ll take the fall.”

Once you decide you’re the leader and you raise your hand, now everything’s your fault.  Everybody and everything that happens below you is yours–the good, the bad–it’s yours alone.

Maybe, that was your destiny.  Or maybe, you learned that’s what it would take to get everything you always wanted…

So here I am, with Jayme Foxx and BigMike, the owner and founder of Advanced Nutrients.  In case it isn’t already obvious, BigMike smokes weed.

There may even be a budtender on hand.  Let’s call him “Screwy Louie.”

We’re having one of our usual chats.  And in case you couldn’t guess, our “usual chats” are pretty heavy.

I’m Chris Collins, founder of Syndicate X–a place where business leaders meet, and share secrets–both their pains and their successes.

Today, we’re sitting around, just talking about leadership.  And we’re digging in about the qualities of Great Leaders.

BigMike thinks Great Leaders smoke weed.  BigMike is also single. And if you would like to date him…

All right, I digress.  I wanna know what BigMike really thinks about leadership.

So I give him a quick quiz.  I wanna know if he knows: how much of leadership is born within you, and how much of leadership is learned?  I want him to guess a percentage.

BigMike guesses–almost correctly–that leadership skills are mostly acquired.  He guesses, by about 80%.

I tell him, according to Psychology Today: ⅓ of leadership is born, but ⅔ of leadership is made.

BigMike is very optimistic.  And single!

I digress…Still, it’s true that Great Leaders can be created, developed.  It starts with a little seed called seeing the world differently…the rest is shaped–and can be shaped continually–by what you’re willing to learn.

So here’s the lesson plan:

  1. Leaders are Born Solo Seeds (with Unusual Growers)

BigMike shares that as a kid, from the getgo, he knew he was a little different.  Other kids didn’t understand and see the world the same way that he did. And he naturally understood human nature pretty well, for whatever reason.

Later, he came to find out that he must be wired a little differently, but he also figured out that his father had taught and encouraged him to see things in this unusual way.

Every solo seed needs a little–special–water.

For me, I never thought that I was smarter…actually, I knew I wasn’t smarter than anybody else. But I did always think that people’s priorities were mixed up, and that they weren’t paying attention to what was important.  And I’m sure being raised mostly by mom, and going through what we went through in my early years, encouraged along that different way of seeing things.

However strange we were to start, BigMike and I both–we were always listening and learning.

When Jayme was younger, she thought people were just not as creative as she was. She was always making up things or fixing things, and other kids were just like, “Oh, really?”

If you have a real strong, unique ability, you feel alone when you’re younger.  But you develop this internal dialogue. And if you’ve got a kind parent or teacher–hell, anyone–they’ll edge you into that conversation, and down your internal, individual path.

BigMike remembers having a stuffed bear he liked so damn much that it got old and ratty.  His mother worked with him on it–she bought a new one, cut it open, stuck the old one inside the new one (like a heart? Or an alien baby?), and sewed it shut. Then, he couldn’t let go of the new one–but at least it was sanitary, for a minute or two.

So what am I really saying? That leaders have to have fucked up childhoods?

No bro.  It just is what it is.  And if you’re gonna blossom into a leader, it’s probably all right.

  1.   From Odd Duck to Captain–Decision Time

I got this job when I was 17 and a half, as a lot attendant in a car dealership, just to pay band rent and buy symbols and drum sticks–’cause you go through a lot of drum sticks when you hit as hard as I did on the drums.  And I came from a background where showing up on time and working hard and giving people more than they paid you for was essential. So even though I was in a band, and I had long hair, and if you saw me from across the street, you might think I didn’t have a work ethic–I worked very hard, as that lot attendant.

So, in spite of my weirdness, it didn’t take long before I was in charge of all the other lot attendants.  And then, I was anointed manager of the detailers, too. And then, they started coming to me and asking me if they could leave early.  I didn’t know how to be a mean boss yet, so all of a sudden, somehow, in my great calculation of how this was gonna work out, I was the only one there, with all these cars to pull up for the customers…

So I learned quickly I’d need to be more demanding.  Everybody in the wash rack was my friend before all this–and now, all of a sudden, I was a friend, but I was also a boss.  And I remember, very distinctly, a couple weeks in, deciding that I was gonna be the boss and do the right thing by the company, not by my friends, because it was affecting me the most.  If there wasn’t order and I didn’t have rules and I didn’t make people show up on time and stay all day and do what they were supposed to do, it made my life miserable, and it wasn’t scalable or effective.

Now, all of sudden, there was this juggle to do–I was their peer one day, and their boss the next.

That’s my first memory of understanding what leadership really was, ’cause I had to go against all of my friends and make a decision to be in charge.

So what was BigMike’s first memory of understanding leadership?

Weird bear love evolved into Cub Scouts–doing projects and having teams.

But when he was 19, he started a business called Turf Pro. He fertilized grass, like ChemLawn did, and made the grass green, killed the weeds, and killed all the fungus at the same time.  He had some friends from high school who wanted sales jobs, so BigMike gave some jobs to them.

And just like me, he quickly realized that he was now in charge–the relationships had to change.

So even though we were natural leaders, leadership was ultimately a decision.  And it was a HUGE decision, because we were betraying our friends in order to reinvent ourselves.

So you can’t really blame the people below you, or the people that are reporting to you.  Once you choose to be a leader, the ultimate outcome is your responsibility.  You have to take ownership, once and for all.

One of the things that you must do to be a Great Leader is completely own that role.  Whatever you’re leading, it’s your baby, your house.

Choosing to lead is serious business.  Like our chats, there’ nothing light about it.

  1.  Dead Serious

I highly recommend Jocko’s book Extreme Ownership.  The biggest takeaway is that, in business, people die if you don’t take it seriously.  And, as a leader, owning the end result is all up to you.  So that result better be life for your business, and your people.

That’s the Navy Seal way.  But it applies to anything you might do.

Guys who are ex-athletes or in the military are often the best leaders.  They understand leadership at such a high level, because for them, life and death were truly at stake.

I was married for 13 years.  And in the end–I didn’t die, but it was almost as bad.

Satan, my ex-wife, cheated on me, and filed for divorce without me knowing–here I was, doing funny stuff with money on my end, and all kinds of crazy stuff was happening to me.

And the moral of the story isn’t, “Oh, what a bitch.”  It’s actually that the narrative I allowed would never get any better if I didn’t change it.  I would carry the same B.S. to my next relationship. And so, after I went through some pain, I said, “You know what? This is 100% my fault.” And then, things started coming to me that I had done wrong.  And in the end, I can make a pretty good case for you right now that that divorce was 100% my fault, and it wasn’t hers–as much as I like to call her “Satan.” ‘Cause I did things that contributed to her behavior–I allowed it to happen.

It’s very easy to take the path of “It’s everybody else, and I’m the victim,” but you will never be a Great Leader, and you will never become better, personally, if you don’t own the result of whatever you’re doing.  There’s very few people out there today who will own their results completely, but the key to being a GREAT entrepreneur is that everything is 100% your fault.

“Responsibility,” BigMike corrects.  I like his optimism.

He’s single, ladies.

  1.   Forge the Feelings They Should Talk About

So great leaders focus intently on the outcome and the result, not the feelings and the politics of being “Right.” Politics and feelings are gonna lead you to complacency, to being average.  If you want to really achieve something, it’s the result you need to look at–not how you feel about having been wrong.

A couple years ago, I had the challenge of fixing a company that was losing about $80,000 per month. And I went in there, and I was doing my research–for over a month.  How many people do you think were talking about profit and performance in that period of time?

Well–they were all bitching at each other about who’s doing what, and complaining, and not wanting to take responsibility, because it hurt.  Their egos were in the way, and they couldn’t get to the fucking goal. Nobody was even talking about it.

They were all surprised that they were losing money.  They were all sad about it. And it’s wasn’t like the people there were stupid, or untalented.  It was that the leader there hadn’t enlisted them to move past their feelings and on to the mission at hand.

What’s everyone on your team focused on?  That’s what you have to look at, because you want people to focus on whatever is actually important.  And that comes directly from you! If you’re waking up every day, and you’re telling yourself nothing, then your whole business is probably gonna be average, or nothing.  If you’re telling yourself, “I can accomplish great things,” and you’re visualizing great things, you’ll create a culture where people are talking how they can improve the customer experience, how they can improve the bottom line–that’s the dialogue you really want.  A great leader creates an environment where you’re talking about performance, and talking about the customer experience–and not playing blame games or being bewildered or downtrodden about past results.

Let them focus on what is important, and shift that focus.  Leadership is also understanding your own brain, what motivates you.  You’re the guy, or girl, who has to get all that head-trash out of the way, clear it out, and be able to move the team forward.  You have to be sold first on anything before you can have your team sold on it. So you have to go through a process of being able to sell yourself, and understand that you have a great product or service that will help society.

It’s hard to lead yourself, lead people, and lead a business.  But to be a great leader, you need to lead all three into a winning mindset, which will become a winning strategy.

  1.  Little Stuff Matters

As a leader, you’ve got to exaggerate the little details to create a winning experience.

As BigMike points out, the large strokes are expected.  But it’s the littlest things that make people go, “Wow, they thought of that!”

That’s where you’ve got them good.  Then, they go back, and they tell their friends, and they talk about you.  And that’s what you want them to do.

You want to give people such a great experience, they cannot help but share what you’ve done.

Disney World’s number one marketing strategy is word-of-mouth.  Betty from Nebraska goes there with her family and has a fantastic experience: “Wow, the streets were so clean, and everything was perfect, and the food tasted so good!” because of every little detail the park people thought of.

They keep track if someone moves a stand on a shop counter–2-3 hours after the fact, they’ll know by the change in sales traffic that the thing was moved.  And the leaders go back in, they look at the counter, and they put it back in the exact spot where business was prime. Everything is tested for maximum profitability, and the Disney Experience is run in a foolproof, replicable way.

They even have a school called the Disney Institute.  Anyone can go to it and learn the magic of paying attention to every detail.  Very few people and companies on this planet operate at that level.  But that’s what the Greatest Leaders want to achieve.

You have to embrace the challenge of that level of complexity if you want to be just that good.

As a Great Leader, you have to create a company culture that’s about outcomes.  Then, you’re a people collector, because you’re gathering the workforce who is up for that challenge.  And who’s willing to learn just as much as you are–and never to stop.

And if you’re not learning something new every day, you’re probably not paying close enough attention.

When Giuliani fixed New York, neighborhoods were able to bounce back, because they started fixing all the broken windows.

And they even started writing jaywalking tickets.  You might think, “Man, that’s anal. It’s not like those people were murdering anyone…”

But guess what?  Murders went down in Manhattan when they started writing jaywalking tickets.  I guess, in a city where they messed with jaywalkers, less people were willing to challenge the cops to a murder.

People start feeling better about the environment they’re in, and treating it with more respect.

They can see when the details are being tended to.  It shows you’re attentive to the big stuff, too.

So the littlest things do matter to a Great Leader…

You’re born a Solo Seed, and you’re watered by those willing to let you fly your freak flag.  But at some point, you’ve got to CHOOSE to be a leader. And guess what? Once you do, you don’t get to stop feeling weird and lonely.  Quite the opposite.

Then, you’ve got to get really serious.  And you have to change your own mind and feelings before you’ll change anyone else’s.  For that, it’s all in the details. Every little thing you do will have an impact on the experience of your employees and your customers, and ultimately, on your legacy.

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