Coming to this realisation has been a slow and sometimes painful process for me as I climb the mountain of building a business based on helping people create exceptional teams. Seth Godin’s marketing genius has relieved me of much despair, but one line stands out in particular; “Most people don’t care about what you do. Your job is to find the small slice of the market; the tiny minority of people who do.”
Slowly, I am finding those people. I guess if you regularly read my blog, LinkedIn algorithms have determined that there is a likelihood you are one of them.
During my three years at the Australian Defence Force Academy, the following quote from Ayrton Senna was on my wall: “Winning is everything. I cannot justify in any way coming second or third.” Something about this laser-focussed, utterly dominant attitude motivated me, and a few years later it was brought into sharp relief.
1998: Sitting in the briefing room with a group of ‘wanna-be’ fighter pilots. Instructor walks in, his faded F/A-18 patch screaming excellence from his arm; “If you want to be fighter pilots, from this day on, you must aim to be the best at everything you do.”
‘Fighter pilot’ is an attitude, and it’s found in many places aside from the hot, claustrophobic cockpit of a military fighter. I’ve found ‘fighter pilot’ in a friend’s hedge fund, another friend’s venture capital firm, and I see it in some motorsport teams. But it’s just not that common. As the navy seals say “Average is easy; that’s why it’s so popular”.
Average doesn’t do anything for me. But high performance is like a drug; when I’m around excellence I feel a palpable energy, and it is the same whether it comes from a virtuoso musician, or a formula 1 team.
Becoming a boss...
We all have technical specialisations. Some of us are airline pilots, some are dentists, some are lawyers. Eventually, either through promotion or the necessity of expanding our business, we become a boss.
This is a critical junction. This is where we either decide to focus on ourselves, or to lead.
At this point, most professionals will continue to focus on their technical specialisation; the chaos created by the people in their team will often be a distraction. They know their success is dependent on the performance of those teams, so they muddle through.
The vast majority will be well-intentioned, empathetic but sadly incompetent leaders. If this sounds harsh, I make no apologies; the research is unequivocal. The biggest factor in employee engagement is the leadership of direct supervisors, and in 2021, 4 out of 5 employees across the globe were disengaged.
But, who can blame our bosses; most have had nothing but a brief course in 'management'; precisely zero of which had anything to do with leadership. A proportion will become workaholic micromanagers, and a minority will fall into the role of 'malevolent dictator' with disturbing ease.
A very small number will realise that from this first promotion, they need to shift their mindset. If they want to see their teams really perform, if they want to dominate their industry, and if they want to build a legacy, they must now be leaders first. For the rest of their career, they must dwell mostly in the leadership space, and only step into command and management roles for brief durations. They must retain a high level of technical proficiency, but this cannot be their main focus.
To begin to understand our role as a leader, we must be clear on what we are responsible for. ‘The role of a leader is to build and sustain an exceptional operating environment’. An exceptional operating environment is one where our team consistently produces excellence, and one where they are engaged and fulfilled.
So, we are responsible for EVERYTHING that affects that environment. As Jocko Willink states “Own it!”. You don’t get any relief. Every single thing that affects your team member’s ability to excel is YOUR responsibility. If the CEO is an asshole, you shelter them. If one of the team makes a horrendous mistake, you manage that to sustain the exceptional operating environment. If there is friction between team members, own it. Sort it out.
Sacrifice your time and energy, and do EVERYTHING in your power to make that environment more conducive to high performance. This is your job. For the rest of your working life.
Ahhhh. That felt good.