We’ve all heard and read the secrets of successful business leaders and organizations. No need to search high and low – just take a stroll into any self-help section of any bookstore and you’ll observe for yourself just how obsessed we’ve become with the demigod leaders of today. Leadership and success are so revered that we seldom reflect on what really transpires on the road to success. Today, many successful leaders have shared insight into “how” they did it and “why” they were so successful, but all too often, it’s a retrospective. Looking back tends to make one recall events that are favorable to the image they want to craft.
From Barack Obama to Steve Jobs, we’ve become accustomed to praising and paying homage to today’s leaders, seeing those with success through rose-colored lenses. It is this very near-sighted, shallow observation that sheds very little light on what truly happens when leaders lead. We know leadership can be difficult. We know that success can come at a price – sometimes a moral price. We have seen evidence of failure. We know talented, competent, energetic, passionate, and wealthy people fail. We tend to forget to write that stuff down.
There are millions of people and companies who struggle day-in and day-out trying to grow a successful business – most of which don’t make it past the first year. Despite that world of failure around us, we cut through the noise and ask the “already successful” ones to look back and share their ultimate secrets, and yet all we get from them are the same reasons that the last person gave us. Is it our fault for not asking the hard questions? Is it our fault for only questioning the successful? Should we consider a deeper review? If only a successful leader or organization could share something like these truths, we might go into business with a healthier, more realistic perspective.
9. “I Only Care About Profits.”
On March 31, 2013, Fortune announced its list of the world’s most profitable companies. Apple Inc., the former number one, was bumped to second for the less consumer-centric Exxon Mobil. Exxon, the oil and natural gas mega giant, reported a profit of nearly $45 billion under the leadership of Rex W. Tillerson. Tillerson, a former engineer who currently resides in Texas, is best known for this comment following harsh criticism from environmentalists – “what good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?” As to how Tillerson found success, there is no doubt – and it didn’t come from looking out for the customer.
8. “I Was Bad For Business, But It’s OK Cause I Made Lots Of Money.”
Jeffrey Immelt replaced the famous Jack Welch in 2001 as CEO of General Electric. Under Immelt’s tenure, GE’s stock dropped nearly 60%. Over 19,000 employees were let go, and more than 30 plants have been shut-down. Despite the heavy losses and poor press, Immelt has earned millions in compensation, averaging approximately $10 million per year. In addition to his huge salary, Immelt was also named to Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2009.
7. “I’d Like To Thank Myself. I Didn’t Get Support From Anyone – Even My Family.”
Warren Buffett is one of the wealthiest individuals in the world, and has publicly admitted he does not intend to share most of his wealth with family. Although the details of his personal life are rather secretive to this day, what is known is that Buffett lived separately from his wife Susan for nearly 30 years. His success has come as a result of smart and timely business decisions, completely separate from emotional support or personal attachment.
6. “If You Try Hard, You’ll Probably Still Fail….It’s Just Math.”
All entrepreneurs try hard. They all believe in an idea. They all visualize their success. But not many people can argue against math. Math is pretty cold and, well, calculated. Dreams aside, the numbers say that small businesses (including start-ups) are generally hit the hardest when trying to get off the ground. Percentages vary, but generally small businesses have approximately a 20-25% chance of success over the course of their first 18 months. That means that more than seven out of every ten fail in under two years.
5. “I Succeeded Thanks To My Investors.”
Andrew Mason, one of the founders and former CEO of Groupon, was a developer before becoming a millionaire, and was funded by his former employer at InnerWorkings. His former boss, Lefkofsky bankrolled Mason’s Groupon project (formerly named The Point) with $1 million in seed money. While business loans can work great if the deal pays off, it’s always great to have backing from someone investing not in both the company and in you.
4. “I Was Born Into Privilege.”
Obama’s second term came at the loss of Willard Mitt Romney. Romney, an American businessman and politician who served as Governor of Massachusetts, was raised in Bloomfield Hills by his parents Lenore and George Romney. George Romney was the former president of American Motors Corporation, and was also a Governor, serving in that position for the state of Michigan. George Romney had accumulated significant wealth during his years as an executive and although Mitt Romney argues he did not inherit his parent’s wealth, he certainly benefited from it all through his years in school and even afterward, and his father’s popularity within the Republican Party didn’t hurt, either.
3. “I Was Lucky.”
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Words attributed to Seneca, a famous Roman philosopher. We never heard successful companies or leaders dare mutter the word “luck” until recently, when United Company Chairman and CEO Jim McGlothlin said “he just got lucky.” In the 70s, McGlothin bid on a coal business that he didn’t really want, the only reason he made the bid being that he felt bad for the seller. So he made the first bid, thinking a bidding war would ensue. Fortunately for him, he was wrong, and his was the only bid. The end result: McGlothlin needed to find a partner to split the $25,000 bid, and within a few short years the company was a success. It sold in 2009 for an estimated $1 billion. McGlothin credits his success to “being in the right plac at the right time.”
2. “I Was A Loser For A Long Time.”
Even the most successful basketball players have missed more shots than they made. Baseball players have struck out more times than they homered. Yet, when success emerges, all else is forgotten. Success is the great elixir. The same can be said in business. For nearly 30 years, Apple Computer Inc. only occasionally scratched the surface of success, until its breakout years in the mid-2000s changed everything. Before the iPod, Apple only had a few successes (Macintosh), but generally lost more than they won. Today, Apple’s success and Jobs’ leadership prevail and have wiped the history books clean. Now, everything Apple touches turns to gold, and their products are some of the best reviewed, and most desired in the world.
1. “I Stepped On Someone To Get Here.”
Facebook’s success and the success of Mark Zuckerberg can be attributed to talent, commitment, vision, timing, and a whole list of other things you might find on a normal top ten list of what to do in business. But one thing that also helped was Zuckerberg’s cold style of business and his ruthless actions against many colleagues, including Eduardo Saverin, former Chief Financial Officer of Facebook. Zuckerberg’s exclusion of Saverin was not received particularly well, and as a result, the two ended up in court where a settlement was reached. How did that betrayal work out? Today, Zuckerberg’s personal wealth is an estimated $19 billion, while Saverin’s is a mere $2 billion.
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