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The Truth About Being a Great Leader

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This article is part of our Rising Star portfolio series.

Good leaders inspire others and take their companies to better places. Take Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX  ) CEO Howard Schultz, for example. From the beginning, Schultz wanted to build a company where employees were respected. His fights for employee health-care and stock-option plans helped instill a mutual trust, a belief that everyone wins when Starbucks works together as a team.

Recently, I had the great fortune to speak with Rajeev Peshawaria, author of Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders. I wanted to learn more about his views on leadership, and how companies ultimately benefit from great leaders. The following is a lightly edited version of our conversation:

Jason Moser: So what motivated you to write a book about leadership? Is this something that you have always wanted to do?

Rajeev Peshawaria: I worked at Fortune 100 companies most of my career, and I got a little tired of all the prescriptive, formulaic leadership development advice which is there in most books these days. Leadership development is a $60 billion annual industry, by my estimates anyway.

Moser: Wow.

Peshawaria: All those programs and books, such as The One Minute Manager and all kinds of great stories about former General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) CEO Jack Welch, try to tell you that the success formula boils down to three simple steps. They make you role-play all of this stuff and then say that you will be a great leader like Jack.

I wanted to write an honest book about leadership, and my message is that you cannot copy somebody else's behavior and become a leader. Because if you look at the dictionary, copying somebody else's behavior is an act of followship, not leadership.

Second, I wanted to actually deglamorize leadership a little bit because leadership is hard. Leadership is lonely and often thankless, and so do you really want to be a leader? I wanted to tell people that the first step of leadership is to find your purpose and your values, and you are going to struggle with those answers. The number of people who cannot answer the question "What's your purpose?" is absolutely astounding. So I guess the short summary is I wanted to write an honest book.

Moser: It sounds like what you are saying is that there truly is a unique solution to every situation and there is no real cookie-cutter way about it, that every company is going to be different.

Peshawaria: Absolutely, and every individual is going to be different. It is all about having the energy to create positive change and the key to leadership is to find that energy. The key to leadership is not learning competency models or doing psychometric testing that tell you your personality type in four letters and all that stuff. I think all that is a waste of time.

Moser: So following up on the honesty that you were speaking of, if you were to walk into a company and just observe their leadership, how long do you think it would take you to determine if the purpose and the values that they publicly espoused were genuinely present within the company?

Peshawaria: You know, it is very easy to see whether they actually walk the talk or not. Most companies have a set of stated values. But then you often see leaders making great speeches about company values at town hall meetings, yet then do the exact opposite when either no one or very few people are looking. When you walk into a company, you just have to sit into a senior management team meeting and watch their behavior. Then you can tell whether this a company that actually lives its values or if values are just posters on the walls.

Moser: So when we are looking at companies to assess whether they're good investments, we have to obviously look at a number of different things. In between looking at financial statements and judging competitive advantages, where should we rank leadership on that list?

Peshawaria: Well, I'm no financial expert, but I saw a study recently which said something to the effect that 65% of a stock's value is made up of intangible future value, including the ability of a company to innovate, the quality of management and leadership, and similar sorts of things. If that is true, then I would think that you would have to rate leadership very high in your analysis.

Moser: That makes a lot of sense, and it's probably why we Fools also think leadership is so important. So is there a checklist or guidelines that leaders can use along the way to help from losing their touch? In other words, what can they do along the way to help them stay in shape as great leaders?

Rajeev: One thing that often happens is that just as you start enjoying your position as a CEO or as a senior leader, people start telling you what they think you want to hear, rather than what you need to hear. So all you need to do, in my opinion, is to keep the doors open for honest feedback.

If you make people feel comfortable about giving you honest feedback, and if you are in the habit of reflecting on a regular basis about whether you're still following your values and your purpose, then you'll remain a good leader. Do those two things, and you won't lose your touch.

Moser: As leaders strive to be successful, is it possible that this success can sort of feed the ego or cause them to lose perspective, creating more problems and ultimately leading to their failure as leaders? In other words, can their success eventually be their downfall?

Peshawaria: Oh, absolutely. That happens all the time. They stop listening. They stop encouraging direct feedback, and they get self-obsessed because of their own success. They say, "I can do no wrong. I am so successful because I am the best," and they lose their humility somewhere down the line.

Moser: Yes, humility is a very important quality. We talk about that a lot with the leaders that we study.

Stay tuned for the third part of our interview on Friday.

The Motley Fool owns shares of Starbucks. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Starbucks. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Stock Advisor analyst Jason Moser owns no shares of any companies mentioned. For more of his articles and opinions, follow him on Twitter @TMFJMo. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (2) | Recommend This Article (12)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2011, at 3:12 PM, asparky59 wrote:

    Thanks for the thoughts, Mr. Peshawaria, it would appear that everything old is new again. Authenticity will never lose its luster.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2011, at 5:06 PM, kdt34wqx wrote:

    If Welch is the culprit in the present state of GE, it's time for the popular press to report this to the public. Immelt should be fired regardless of whether it's his fault or not, as he is Welch's handpicked successor.

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