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What Makes a Truly Great Leader?

In the technology industry--characterized by brutal competition and relentless change--this profile of a standout leader will surprise you.
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If you spend your career in the high-tech industry, you'll probably get to work with all sorts of brilliant and highly accomplished leaders. CEOs, entrepreneurs, VCs, executives, super-talented technogeeks--they're everywhere.  That's just the way it is around here.

You can pick up a lot of useful insights from these amazing and eccentric characters: How to manage, how not to manage, how to motivate employees, what risks to take, even how to crash and burn and take a whole company down with you. All sorts of cool stuff.

I certainly learned a lot from the hundreds of extraordinary leaders I've known over the years, but one stands out. His name is Jason. Jason and I worked together at a midsized public company. He was the CFO; I ran marketing.

As peers, we had a great relationship characterized by mutual respect and support. I always knew he had my back.

One evening, on a flight back from a long trip to Florida with our CEO, we got stuck on a grounded airplane for hours. We all had a little too much to drink and the boss and I got into a heated argument. Jason jumped in and mediated, keeping me from shooting myself in the foot. That's just the way he was.

Personally, we had absolutely nothing in common, but somehow, we complimented each other perfectly. I'm sort of outspoken and over-the-top. Jason, on the other hand, was more introverted and reserved. Still, I found his dry sense of humor to be hilarious in an unexpected way.

Finally, after a long series of strategic missteps that nearly bankrupted the company, our CEO got the boot and Jason took over as acting chief executive. I couldn't have been happier. He had all the requisite skills and attributes of a great manager, but that wasn't what made him unique. What stood out about Jason was his balance.

The guy just had a sense of equilibrium that was unflappable, even in the face of remarkably tough challenges. He was confident, but never overconfident. The risks he took were calculated. His decisions were logical and smart. He listened to the experts but knew the final decision was always his to make because the buck stopped with him.

Jason worked long hours, but his time was eerily well-organized; he somehow managed to get to everything. And this may sound sort of odd, but in an industry characterized by brutal competition and rapid change, I don't recall him ever seeming out of sorts or out of control. That was quite a contrast from the high-tech norm, that's for sure.

While he didn't know everything there was to know about running a complex technology company, he had a great supporting cast and knew how to work with us, how to motivate us, how to lead us. We were a far more effective management team under him than our founding CEO.

Unfortunately, that situation didn't last. Lacking the scale to compete on our own, we ultimately merged with a larger company. While that didn't exactly turn out as planned, it did make sense at the time. The missteps that doomed the post-merger company were made after Jason was long gone.

Now, here's where the story takes a bit of a left turn. While he did take on another interim turnaround role, Jason left the high-tech industry and never held another chief executive role. Instead, he opted to remain a CFO, and a successful one, to this day.

Personally, I think that's a real shame. The guy would have made an outstanding permanent CEO. And I would have gladly worked for him again anytime, anywhere.

The irony is that, in an industry characterized by mercurial superstars like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Larry Ellison, the standout leader, at least in my 30 plus years of experience, was an understated finance guy who was eminently competent, confident, calm, and balanced. Simple as that.

IMAGE: Flickr photo courtesy of Korea.Net
Last updated: Aug 6, 2013

STEVE TOBAK | Columnist

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, an executive coach, and a former senior executive of the technology industry. He's managing partner of Invisor Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based strategy consulting firm. Contact Tobak; follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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