Every successful CEO has a mantra. Steve Jobs built Apple with “Think Different.” Jeff Weiner of LinkedIn borrowed his from Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski: “Next Play.” — translation: don’t linger on success; keep striving.
Unlike a mission statement broadcast far and wide to the external world, a company’s mantras serve as an internal driving force. Repeated in the halls and every meeting, they answer the questions before they’re even asked. What would Steve (or Jeff) say? Not only do a leader’s mantras echo throughout the company’s culture during their tenure, but these words are often their greatest legacy.
The word mantra itself means “instrument of thought” — in Sanskrit, “man” refers to thought, while “tra” refers to a tool or instrument. In the realm of business, a mantra serves as combination focal point, challenge, and test. When the engineers and designers at SpaceX or Tesla Motors encounter an obstacle or suggest a new idea, Elon Musk invokes his “First Principles” mantra, asking, “What are we sure is true?” When people say something can’t be done, ask them why not — and ask them to try anyway. Within the boundaries of nature and physics, anything is possible.
Whether you believe it or not, you already have (at least) one mantra. If you don’t already know it, ask the people around you. They know; it’s your measure of success — and of failure.
Whatever mantra(s) you choose, bring out the best in your team with these 5 mantras that will make you a better leader:
Be the example.
Of course, you’re busy. Between setting financial goals, and making key personnel decisions, as well as serving as the company’s public face, you find time precious. It’s easy to get distracted and forget where you are.
Like it or not, you are being observed. No matter how trivial a certain behavior seems, any number of people throughout the organization take their cues from you — your every habit, every attitude, every point of view. The way you behave sends ripples throughout the organization, contributing to the norm. That’s why being a good leader starts with being a great example.
Ever look up in a meeting and notice someone sneaking a peek at a text or otherwise looking distracted? Perhaps it was Marty, chief marketing officer. Your inside voice blurted out: Marty, get your head up! Pay attention. But here’s the thing: Where do you think Marty learned this behavior? From you.
The words of your mantras are only as meaningful as the behavior with which you model them. So the next time you fidget or zone out in a meeting, just remember you are sending a message that it’s all right for others to do so too. Conversely, if you appear prepared and engaged, it signals that meetings are important. Whichever attitude you choose, you can be sure that’s how others will act as well.
Ask first, tell second.
How many times a day does someone call on you to make a decision? You’re in a meeting, someone catches you in the hallway, or you receive an inquisitive text: “Such and such happened. What should we do?”
While the person asking the question expects you to have the answer, the truth is that every decision you make weakens your organization. It strips someone else of power, if not responsibility, which runs contrary to a core tenet of leadership: elevate others through teamwork. What’s more, your solution may not be the most effective one, because the person seeking your advice – whether they know it or not – often has more context for solving the problem than you do.
For example, Lorraine, the Vice President of Sales, seeks your guidance on an upcoming proposal to a key customer. Before answering, stop. Ask Lorraine for her recommendation. Even if her thoughts mirror your own, how did she arrive at her response? It’s helpful to learn how Lorraine approaches a problem. She may also offer an invaluable perspective of which you were otherwise unaware.
Perhaps Lorraine reached a different conclusion. Then challenge her, keeping an open mind. What additional information would help you to arrive at the same answer? When two well-intentioned people have the same information, they inevitably reach the same conclusion.
Each time you begin by asking first, you build strength within your team.
The act of asking shows that you value others’ perspectives and opinions. Ask first, and your team will rise to earn your trust.
Find a way.
The greatest responsibility of any leader is to lead. In other words, to see potential where others cannot – or fear to. Such leadership begins with defining the company’s strategy. Whether it involves creating something new or offering it at a lower price, it’s the what, how, and why of your company’s existence.
Whenever you lay out such a plan, doubters will inevitably say it’s too hard, or that it can’t be done. Well, of course, it’s not easy – otherwise, someone else would already be doing it. Find a way.
“Find a way” dissolves all doubt, shifting the conversation from “can we?” to “how will we?” Moreover, this mantra injects creativity and collaboration into the discussion. It forces everyone at the table to reimagine their approach to solving the problem. Perhaps there is a way after all – and that way will become your competitive advantage.
For example, let’s say the key strategic decision is to build a flux capacitor capable of generating 121 gigawatts. What others may not see is that this challenge offers enormous benefits – solving it will draw attention to the brand, allowing the company to command premium prices on all its products. The initial response from the head of manufacturing, though, is that it’s impossible. “Keep at it,” you say. “Find a way.” Now engineering is forced to collaborate with R&D – and suddenly, inspiration strikes like a bolt of lightning. Everyone is off and running. Your team has gone from “it’s impossible” to “we’ll find a way” in a matter of minutes.
This mantra serves as a helpful reminder for you and your team that whatever challenge or goal you’re facing, once you’ve set course, everyone must work together to find a way.
Delegate, delegate, delegate.
Given the importance of strategy, where will you find the time to focus on it in the middle of a hectic day? Contemplating strategy requires plenty of unstructured time. Where in your schedule is that time hiding, and how can you find it?
First, identify every area where you are involved unnecessarily. For example, if you still open your own mail, schedule meetings, or approve minor expenses, stop. Right. Now. In fact, pull out a pad and pen and carry it with you for a week. (Yes, you can take notes on your phone or tablet, but writing them down with an old school pen is even better.)
Write down every activity you do each day. Next to each entry, add how much time you spend on it. Be honest. At the end of your week, look at your list and ask: Which of these activities am only I capable of handling? Or, if you prefer: Who else in the organization could do this?
Now check your list again and calculate the number of hours spent working on the company’s strategy. Hmmm. Imagine what would happen if you dedicated that same time to thinking about or advancing the company’s strategy. What a difference! Now look back at your list, starting from the top, and delegate, delegate, delegate. When you trust others to think intelligently and make wise decisions, you build their trust in you as a respectful leader, even as you learn to trust your team.
Share the insomnia.
Leaders often make the mistake of withholding financial information. The thinking goes that people outside the executive suite won’t know how to interpret the numbers or will make false assumptions. On the contrary, just the opposite is true. It’s in the absence of information that people reach speculative (and often false) conclusions.
Moreover, education is a key to elevating others. Ensure everyone in the organization, from top to bottom, clearly understands the key numbers driving the company’s financial performance. Conveying that understanding can be as simple as breaking the numbers down to basic unit economics. If the company makes 5 dollars on every working flux capacitor and loses 50 dollars on every one that’s defective, then the company loses money if every tenth flux capacitor is defective ((9 X $5 = $45) + (1 X -$50 = -$50) = -$5)).
When you share information – financial or otherwise – about the organization’s performance, you do much more than just clarify the company’s goals. By sharing the information you unite everyone in the organization around those goals, and around the challenges you face in reaching them. Sharing these struggles harnesses the collective problem-solving power of everyone in the company. Questions that keep you up at night will keep everyone else up at night, too – and before long, someone will find a way.
Whatever mantras you adopt, it’s important to choose them wisely.
A good mantra will help you stay focused on your vision, even amid all the decisions you make each day. A great mantra, coupled with consistent behavior, will resonate throughout your organization’s culture, creating a firm bond among all your team members. Over time, as the others join or begin to take the lead, they too will adopt and pass along your mantras. In effect, they will become part of your legacy.
What mantras will you choose?
Rugger Burke is a principal and general counsel of Satori Capital, LLC, a multi-strategy private-investment firm. In addition to co-leading the firm’s private equity business, he serves on the boards of various companies and is the author of The Power of 10: A Practice For Engaging The Voice of Wisdom.