The Character Traits and Skills of the Successful CEO — Lightning Rod

Big Red Car here.  Ahhh, it’s sunny and crisp here in the ATX.  Oh, it’s about 55F right now but it’s headed to 72F before the day is over.

Ahhh, on Earth as it is in Texas.

CEOs — successful CEOs — have a set of character traits and skills that are unique to them and drive their success.  One of these skills is the ability to function as a lightning rod and catch all of the stress that the world throws at their organization whether it is a fledgling startup just exiting the cradle or an established small or medium sized business.

What are you talking about, Big Red Car?

In the course of running your business, brilliant CEO, you will from time to time face challenges that are game and life changing.  You will run a bit short of money — the infamous gold runway.  You may get an offer to buy the company.  You may decide to sell the company and want to surreptitiously test the waters.  You may lose your largest customer.

All of these things are sources of stress that if allowed to spread broadly within the company may give rise to very serious consequences.

Successful CEOs draw these controversies and conflicts to themselves and project an air of “business as usual”.  This is the lightning rod of the title.  The CEO is the lightning rod which attracts, receives, absorbs and deals with the first impact of these serious issues.  The CEO purposely draws the impact to themself.

How do you do this, Big Red Car?

The first challenge to overcome, Old Sport, is the recognition of those issues which give rise to the stress and potential deleterious impact on the company.  You have to be listening and watching and observant.  You are, after all, the boss man or woman, no?

You are going to have to take the measure of the challenges and repackage how you communicate them to others.

While The Boss is a huge fan of candid communication, there are some things which require a bit of interpretation to put them right for public consumption.

Hey, Big Red Car, does that mean you are filtering the information?  Yes, it does, Old Sport.  Yes, it does.  Sometimes you are even gilding the lily just a bit.

Why are we doing this again, Big Red Car?

As a young Army officer, The Boss was often queried by some wily draftee as to “…how is this going to work out, LT?” when going out on a mission.   The Boss would often respond:  “Piece of cake.  I’ve got a date on Thursday so it has to work out.”  Everybody laughed.  Draftees often laughed at Lieutenant’s jokes.

Of course, this was pure nonsense.  The Boss had not an inkling as to how things might turn out.  But he knew that the soldiers wanted to follow officers who were positive and confident.  So — he projected confidence and a positive attitude.  It worked.

So, in business, your team wants to know that you are confident and have a positive attitude — even when you really do not — toward whatever challenges face them at any time.

To go a bit political on you for just a second.  Former Secretary of Defense Robert M Gates in his new book “Duty” describes his impression that the President did not really believe in the mission in Afghanistan at the time of the 30,000 soldier “surge”.  Gates says President Obama did not believe in the mission.  This is exactly what we are talking about today.

The President should have exuded confidence and a positive attitude even if he did not really hold that view in his innermost thoughts.  As you can see, the President is taking a beating for having committed troops to a cause he apparently did not believe in.  If your son died on that surge, you are very perturbed with the President.  Rightfully so?

Should the President have faked it?  Yes, Grasshopper.  The President should have faked it.  Moving an organization to somewhere they would not otherwise arrive by themselves — a gritty definition of leadership — may require a bit of chicanery.  Sorry to be so real.

How do I apply this in my own company, Big Red Car?

First, brilliant CEO, understand that being a lightning rod to absorb the stress targeted at your company is part of your duties.

Listen and observe.  Listen and observe.  Observe and listen.  You will see and hear it.

Absorb it, repackage it, communicate it in a manner that is “aw shucks, we can handle this, right?”.  Don’t multiply the danger.

Then fix the problem and keep it to yourself.

Remember unrestrained stress can kill an organization.

But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway?  I’m just a Big Red Car.  Be kind to yourself.  You deserve it.  I’ve been watching you and you’re doing a great job. you lightning rod you.