April 16, 2018
Experts Corner

What makes exceptional leaders different?

Stephen C. Wakeen

I recently attended Hartford Business Journal's 90 Ideas In 90 Minutes event at the Hartford Club. Eight executives espoused their theories on leadership, including to be nice.

One might think that being nice is antithetical to the image of the hard-driving CEO who sacrifices his or her personal life for the success of the company. But this is inaccurate. They work hard, no doubt. But successful CEOs put their humanity first to get results.

Let's examine some of the ideas these executives shared to see how they use their humanity in their work.

Patrick Dempsey, CEO of Barnes Group Inc., was the No. 1 iron worker in all of Europe. Now he runs an American company with more than $1 billion in revenue. He says we should be passionate about any activity because it leads to doing greater things. Our passion can change. He encouraged us to be lifelong learners and be willing to reinvent ourselves.

Joe Gianni, Hartford Market President for Bank of America, said to refrain from constantly focusing on your long-term goal. Otherwise, unrealized expectations will continually disappoint you. Immerse yourself in your work. You'll be happier, do your best work and reach your goal. Gianni also encouraged us to smile. It makes others smile. Then he smiled. The audience smiled back.

Bonnie Malley, vice president of finance and administration for the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, encouraged women to find their voice. Malley is inspired by Eckhart Tolle and his book, "The Power of Now." She said, "It's about character. It's about being humble and kind." Michael Cantor of Cantor Colburn LLP said be nice to everybody.

Rohan Freeman, president and CEO of Freeman Companies and 7 Summits, encouraged us to elevate our expectations. Freeman climbed the seven highest summits in the world. He suggests that we "embrace the risk we are about to take."

Research by Robert Schruaf found that 50 percent of our thoughts are negative. Imagine Freeman crossing a crevasse on Kilimanjaro and thinking, "I can't do this." This happens to CEOs. But they find a way. They expunge negative self-talk.

For Curtis Robinson, CEO of C&R Development Co., the key to success is discipline. Discipline is about determination, staying on course regardless of the odds and people telling us no. Jeffrey Flaks, president of Hartford Healthcare, calls it belief. He also said, "If you don't change anything, you shouldn't expect anything to change." That speaks for itself.

Finally, Felix Rappaport, president and CEO of Foxwoods Resort Casino, says that leaders need to serve as catalysts to help bring ideas to fruition.

Here are six things we can conclude from the panel:

1. While leaders must hold their people accountable, highly evolved leaders are accountable to their employees as well.

2. Earl Nightingale, the celebrated motivational speaker, coined the phrase, "We become what we think about." We can be an ironworker one day and a CEO later if we remain open to possibility.

3. CEOs know they have inherent power and that their negativity can be toxic. Those who recognize how to use power positively get better results.

4. To embrace risk, minimize negative self-talk. Or use it as a motivator.

5. Determination grows from belief, and creates focus, which leads to stronger self-discipline.

6. Great leaders enable teams to score the touchdowns. It's how they win the Super Bowl.

In the book "Mastering Leadership," research by authors Robert Anderson and William Adams shows that 75 percent of leaders are highly controlling and protective. Twenty-percent emphasize building relationships, encouraging new ideas, fostering teamwork and authenticity. The 20 percent are statistically more effective than the 75 percent.

Most successful leaders recognize that showing their humanity has far-reaching positive effects.

Or as Warren Bennis said, "The process of becoming a great leader is the same as that of becoming a great person."

Stephen C. Wakeen is the founder of Connecticut-based Playbook Coaching LLC, which provides executive coaching services.

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