Learning How to be a Leader from CEOs

Jann Freed Leading Comments

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For a decade, I have been reading Adam Bryant’s column in the Sunday New York Times business section called “Corner Office.”  In fact, I have required my undergraduate and graduate students to read his weekly interviews with CEOs because his questions included how they lead their employees, how they hire and the life advice they give or wish they had received.  The main theme that emerged and resonated with me was the influential role of the leader in creating the culture and how important the culture is to employee satisfaction, productivity, and growth–both of the company and of employees.

Since we both like to interview people, I often admired his job and thought how fun that would be to learn about leadership from the life and work experience of people at the top–CEOs.  After a decade of weekly interviews (and he published a book based on “Corner Office”), Bryant summarized what he learned in his last column which you can read here.  He learned that leadership is a series of paradoxes:

  • Leaders need humility to know what they don’t know, but have the confidence to make a decision in the midst of uncertainty.
  • Leaders need to be empathetic and care about people, but have the courage to let them go if they are hurting the team or the organization.

Bryant said that if he were to rank the most important qualities of effective leadership, he would put trustworthiness at the top.  As one of his CEOs said, “If you want to lead others, you’ve got to have their trust, and you can’t have their trust without integrity.”

He said a close “cousin” to trust is respect for the people who work for you.  According to Bryant, “Discussions about different aspects of leadership sometimes remind me of Russian nesting dolls, because many of the qualities can feel like subsets of one another.  But I keep going back to the first principles of how we’re wired as human beings–we can sense at a kind of lizard-brain level whether we trust someone.”

One of the things I appreciated about Bryant’s interviews is how he integrated work and life.  He said his favorite career advice from a CEO was this statement:  “Go play in traffic.”  In other words, “if you go push yourself out here and you see people and do things and participate and get involved, something happens.  I tell people, just show up, get in the game, go play in traffic.”

I will miss Bryant’s column and I told him so.  Now we are connected on LinkedIn and I follow him on Twitter.

“Go play in traffic!”