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Leaders who run toward trouble

“Steve, the Iraqi interpreter, summed it up best. On our last day in Fallujah, he shook my hand as we were heading out of the city, and with a prideful tone in his voice, he said, ‘When the bombs and bullets come at us, we run and hide. But you, you crazy Marines run right into them! I’ve never seen anything like it!’”

A young Marine I know wrote this about his departure from Fallujah during the Iraq conflict. He had always been a thrill seeker and duty-bound, but his experience in the Marines took him to a new level.

How about CEOs and other business leaders? Why do some leaders run toward trouble and some duck and cover? I’ve worked with both and can tell you that those who want someone else to fight the fight don’t engender much loyalty or esprit de corps from their people.

I believe there are three characteristics of leaders whom you’d follow into any business battle.

First, these leaders aren’t afraid to fail or, more accurately, they control their fear. The voice in their head doesn’t say, “Look out! You might get hurt!” Rather, it says, “This is a tough situation, but I can get us out of it, for the good of the company and my people.”

I recently had lunch with a CEO who, at significant risk to himself, was taking the high road — which also happened to be the roughest road — to make sure his people were taken care of in the company’s sale. Not to the point of ruining the deal, but making sure that the rewards weren’t concentrated in the hands of one or two people. When this CEO leaves, I guarantee you those people will follow him anywhere.

Second, these leaders have high self-worth. Call it self-esteem, if you’d like. They know that leadership comes with obligations and getting muddy is part of the gig. They also recognize that they won’t win all battles but they should be shot for desertion if they run from their duty. They understand that in business, unlike war, they’ll live to fight another day if they run toward trouble and find a division of opposing troops. Their first thought isn’t, “How will I look?” but rather, “What do I need to do?” They aren’t crushed by defeat, and they don’t take all the credit when the battle goes their way.

Third, these leaders most likely appreciate winning but are more concerned with doing their best and getting their people to do their best. John Wooden, the former UCLA basketball coach and arguably the most successful and best coach in any major sport, surprisingly didn’t talk about winning, just about doing your best. The successful leaders I’ve worked with have an internal measurement system that drives them to do their best rather than a need to “beat” others. Running from trouble doesn’t enter their mind.

More pragmatic than political, more focused than fearful, more caring than competitive, the political and business leaders people want to follow are more likely to run toward trouble than from it.

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Todd Ordal

Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy LLC. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He speaks, writes, consults and advises on issues of strategy and leadership. Todd is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Follow Todd on Twitter here. You can also find Todd at http://www.appliedstrategy.info,  303-527-0417 or todd@appliedstrategy.info

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