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Extreme Leadership

How to be an Extreme Leader

Choose to be Extreme

Here’s the problem: many people who call themselves leaders are only posing. They’re wearing the label or accepting the title without putting their skin in the game. So I’m asking you — assuming that you really do aspire to lead — to approach the act of leadership as you’d approach an extreme sport: learn to love the fear and exhilaration that naturally comes with the territory. And that takes a personal commitment and a significant, personal choice. As my friend and colleague, Terry Pearce, said in an article in the San Francisco Examiner:

“There are many people who think they want to be matadors, only to find themselves in the ring with two thousand pounds of bull bearing down on them, and then discover that what they really wanted was to wear tight pants and hear the crowd roar.”

If, however, you do make the choice to leap into the ring, it’s because of your love of the challenge, the adventure, and that love is what makes the fear of the “sport” worthwhile. Not only do you accept the fear as part of the experience, the fear — in large part — creates and defines the experience. Extreme would not be extreme without fear. And fear would not be worth it without the love of the game.

The same is true of Extreme Leadership: it is the dynamic interplay of fear and love-two of the most powerful forces in the human experience. And in my estimation, those who actively and intentionally use the experience of fear and love everyday in their attempts to change things for the better — in whatever arena — are Extreme Leaders. Read on if you’re ready to make that choice …

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Pursue the OS!M

Extreme Leadership is intensely personal and intrinsically scary. You are striving to change the nature of things, and that’s a scary endeavor because you are asking yourself and others to give up the familiar. It is scary because you have no guarantee of a positive outcome. It is scary because you don’t know how you are personally going to be judged; your credibility is on the line. There is no way — absolutely no way, therefore — to participate in an authentic leadership experience without fear.

We’ve been conditioned to believe that fear is `bad. And while it’s true that fear can save your life or keep you from doing something stupid, avoiding it can also keep you from doing something great, from learning something new, and from growing as a human being. Fear is a natural part of growth, and since growth, change and revolution are all on the Extreme Leader’s agenda, fear comes with the territory.

In the right context, therefore, your experience of fear (or exhilaration, for that matter) is your internal indicator that you’re moving in the right direction. That you really are leading, in other words. That scary/exhilarating experience is what I call the Oh Shit! Moment or OS!M.

To put it bluntly: if you’re using all the buzzwords and reading all the latest leadership books, and holding forth at every meeting on the latest management fads, but you’re not experiencing that visceral churning in your gut, and you’re not scaring yourself every day, and you’re not feeling that OhShit!Moment as regularly as clockwork, then you are not doing anything significant — let alone changing the world — and you are certainly not leading anyone else.

As an Extreme Leader, your OS!Ms will happen as a result of your taking a Radical LEAP every day.

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Cultivate Love

Do what you love in the service of people who love what you do.

The emotion of love is considered to be out of place or simply inappropriate in the world of business. Many believe that good business people keep their hearts out of their work. The opposite is true. It’s the heart that brings the fire of creativity to bear on the day-to-day. It’s the heart that inspires drive, loyalty and leaps of innovative brilliance.

The word, “love,” appears frequently in the leadership literature, and in many studies, love is identified as an important ingredient in productive leader/follower and coach/employee relationships. In research conducted at the Tom Peters Company, we found that in order to be an effective coach, you have to care about the person you’re coaching. You can’t simply go through the motions because you’re so obliged.

I use the word, “love,” in the broadest sense. I’m not saying that you should fall in love with everyone you work with. That could get a bit complicated, to say the least. I am saying that you have to find something to care deeply about in your business and in each individual that touches your business. And it has to be real. And they have to know it.

The key, then, is to find a way to genuinely and sincerely love the customer and then act from that level of motivation. Great business relationships are won in ways analogous to romantic relationships: by paying nearly obsessive attention to the needs, desires, hopes and aspirations of the other person. By knowing not only when to stand firm on your own principles but also when to sacrifice your short-term needs for the long-term relationship. And by proving through your own actions that you really mean it, and that you’re not simply following the advice that you gleaned from the latest training program. The Extreme Leader — in other words — actually does love the customer and strives, therefore, to enhance the customer’s life.

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Generate Energy

Energy is not abstract or metaphysical; it’s real, tangible, palpable. You know when you have it and you know when you don’t; you know when you have to drag yourself out of bed in the morning, and when you have to use the law of gravity to slide your slack, lifeless body off the mattress and smack on the floor.

I can tell within — and I’m being generous here — 30 seconds of walking into the reception area of a company whether the place is energetic, exciting and scintillating, or a morgue populated by zombied paycheck-collectors.

It’s not an accident, either way. Someone is creating that environment, and if it’s your place of employment, that someone may well be you.

Here’s a good question to ask yourself: “Do I generate more energy when I walk into a room, or when I walk out of it?”

Energy is what keeps us coming back to work day after day without waning in passion or enthusiasm. It comes, in part, from what John Chambers called the “higher purpose.” A CEO survey conducted in 2001 by Accenture and The Conference Board said, “Many CEOs observe that people want to feel a passion for the company’s work, to become part of a higher purpose than business results alone.” The Extreme Leader’s job is to help define and redefine, day after day, what that higher purpose is.

Michael Cunningham in his novel, The Hours, said, “If you shout loud enough, for long enough, a crowd will gather to see what all the noise is about. It’s the nature of crowds. They don’t stay long, unless you give them reason.”

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Inspire Audacity

Audacity is, “A bold and blatant disregard for normal constraints.” But audacity also has mixed connotations. Here’s the way Webster’s New World Thesaurus brakes it down:

audacity n. 1. [Courage] — Syn. daring, boldness, valor; see courage 2. [Impudence] — Syn. impertinence, temerity, brazenness, insolence

Love-inspired audacity is courageous, not impudent. (Literally-the word, courage, has at its root the word, cor, which means heart). The Extreme Leader, then, is courageously audacious in his or her actions and approach.

Carly Fiorina, the controversial former CEO of Hewlett Packard said, “A leader’s greatest obligation is to make possible an environment … where people can aspire to change the world.” That’s an audacious statement of purpose for any leader, and it’s exactly the question that I pose here for the Extreme Leader: “How are you/we going to change the world?” Choose your scope: World (with a capital W) or world (with a small w). Can you make the connection between the work that you do and its potential impact on the entire World? Great. Be bold about it. Henry Ford said, “The horse will disappear from the highways.” Audacious. If you’re not going to change the World, then what about the world of your customers, your company, your co-workers?

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Provide Proof

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner have shown that credibility is the foundation of leadership, and they go on to define credibility behaviorally as DWYSYWD: Do What You Say You Will Do. If it’s true that leaders lead by their own example, it follows then that Extreme Leaders lead by their own extreme example. You have to put your skin in the game, put yourself and your reputation at risk. You have to prove yourself through significant, observable, daily action. It’s insanely easy to talk a good game. (How many buzzwords per minute can you crank out?) Do you say you love your team? Prove it! Do you say we need to be bold and inventive for our customers? Prove it! Do you tell your folks that they’re “your most important asset”? Prove it and prove it again in every action that you take.

The minute you say the words, “I can’t do that in this organization” or “they won’t let me,” your credibility as an Extreme Leader is shot. On the other hand, when you are absolutely convinced that you can change your organization, family or community for the better, you have to prove it through the radical courage of your own action. As British management guru, Charles Handy, says in The Hungry Spirit, “If we want to see more of the good news than the bad we will have to do it for ourselves. It is no good waiting for some unidentified ‘they’ to fix our world for us.” Gandhi said it this way: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” And you already know how Nike says it.

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