Leadership: The Battle or the Dance?

Good leaders need a streak of paranoia. Or do they? A father and son debate.
Aug 01, 2005

Eyes in the Back of Your Head; Strengths and Weaknesses

Sander A. Flaum
FATHER: I assume that my competitors are out to woo my best clients, as well as my best people. I know I have to work harder, smarter, and more vigilantly than anybody else, because they are after exactly what I have achieved. And everything I've achieved with my clients and employees can be swept away if I let down my guard, coast, and rest on the laurels of yesterday's success.

Jonathon Flaum
Business has nothing to do with yesterday and everything to do with the present. You're only as good as your last project. Was it A+ or simply what was expected of you? To meet a client's expectations but not exceed them every time is the kiss of death. If you're just status quo, you're falling behind.

Jeff Rich, the CEO of ACS, the $4 billion–plus public company famous for its business process outsourcing through service products like EZ Pass, puts it this way: "Be it a human resource function, an accounting function, or a New York EZ Pass function—how to collect money, how to improve the collection rates, how to get the bills out faster, how to get the money moving faster—we lie awake at night thinking about that kind of thing."

Jeff knows that a client's exceeded expectation today becomes the standard tomorrow and that the bar is continually raised, without end. It means constantly topping your last best performance and not being satisfied with anything less than a new innovation every time—a result that gets your customer or client to say, "Wow, I never would have thought of that on my own! Good thing we have them around."

Does this mean I'm paranoid when it comes to business? Absolutely! You can't stay on top if you're not. You think Bill Gates would ever take his eye off the ball of the newest video-game technology? Think he would let an opportunity to hire the best programmer in the business pass him by? Not on your life. Leadership entails having eyes in the back of your head and on all sides and requires you to sleep less and work harder and smarter than the competition.

Strengths and Weaknesses

SON: I agree with the necessity of paying vigilant attention to client and customer expectations and being sure to exceed them every time. That's not just for the customers' sake and for the pragmatics of maintaining the business, but because you yourself have an inner drive to reach further with every project. By its nature, competition rules in business. If we become complacent with our efforts or dependent on a past success to carry us forward, we will soon enough be on the losing end of it.

I don't disagree with my father on this state of affairs; I'm just not satisfied with how this climate affects us in ways not measured by the bottom line. The necessity of remaining on high-alert paranoid status means a degree of aggressiveness that may help us in business but hurt us in the other contexts that we inhabit as human beings, such as friendship, intimate partnership, parenthood, and just simple everyday life outside work.

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