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Want to Be a Great Leader? There's an Equation for That

Leading a company takes guts, gumption--and maybe a little calculus. Chip Conley, Ev Williams, and others reveal the equations that guide their thinking.
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Any entrepreneur who's been through the tough--and exhilarating--ride of starting up a business knows there's no one method for success.

The same goes for managing people--there is no one formula that unlocks the secrets of leading a team successfully. 

Even so, experienced leaders figure out over time what works best for them--they develop rules of thumb, guidelines, and processes they like to repeat. Read on to find five leaders who have spun their own best practices into literal equations. They may not be one-size-fits-all formulas, but they're chock full of practical advice that can help any CEO improve her strategy, method, and thinking.

Chip Conley


The founder of Joie de Vivre boutique hotel chain and head of global hospitality for Airbnb, believes every great CEO needs to communicate honestly with employees. In his New York Times best-selling book, "Emotional Equations: Simple Truths for Creating Happiness + Success," Conley says CEOs need to be emotionally intelligent, stable, and communicative.

He believes CEOs are "emotional thermostats"--meaning whatever emotion a boss is feeling, the employees will follow. This is especially important to keep in mind during layoffs or otherwise difficult times in a company.

He uses this emotional equation while leading a team: Anxiety = Uncertainty X Powerlessness. To stem employee anxiety, a CEO must first make them feel certain by communicating honestly. The worst thing for a CEO to do is hole up in his office and withhold information. "Nothing is worse than the gaping hole of mystery," he says in this YouTube video. Then, give your employees a sense of power--ask their advice or involve them in the process of coming up with a solution. Once they feel they have some influence and certainty (even if they're certain of a negative outcome), they'll be able to overcome their anxiety and focus on the task at hand. 

Marc Ecko


The founder of the billion-dollar fashion and media company Marc Ecko Enterprises, has always tried to stay authentic to his roots. Authenticity, Ecko says, is how a white Jewish kid from New Jersey (and a pharmacy school drop-out) was able to build a billionaire-dollar empire through his love for hip-hop and graffiti. In an excerpt of his new book, "Unlabel: Selling You Without Selling Out," he says in business he follows the "authenticity formula" where failure is "a given."

Although his Authenticity Formula above may look like nonsense, it makes more sense in words: Authenticity = (What You Say) x (What You Do) + (Capacity for Change) x (Emotional Impact)^(Vision for the Future).

"Authenticity (AWE) is a function of your unique voice, truthfulness, capacity for change, range of emotional impact, and the power of imagination," he writes.

"To understand the anatomy of a brand, I created a formula that explains the nervous system, the heartbeat, the spine, and the core of a brand's authenticity."  

Alan Ennis


Ennis, who ran the make-up company Revlon from May 2009 until he resigned in October 2013, has a very simple equation for being a successful CEO: "I have a leadership team where I tell them regularly, 'Listen, guys, I'm going to be wrong half the time. And if you can be right half the time I'm wrong, then we'll be right 75 percent of the time," he said during a recent interview with The Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania. "And making three out of four decisions correct in the corporate world today is a pretty good thing."

Be comfortable being wrong and inspire your team to be opinionated, to be vocal, and to challenge you, he says.  

Steve Kerr


Kerr was a key figure at General Electric: As the vice president of leadership development and the chief learning officer until 2001, he also advised the legendary former GE CEO Jack Welsh for 11 years. In fact, Kerr is said to have taught Welsh much of what he knew about leadership. But, perhaps one of the most influential lessons was this simple equation: Q x A = E.

According to a blog post by Mark Miller, the VP of Operational Effectiveness at Chick-fil-A, Kerr spoke about this equation during a presentation two decades ago. "The day Jack Welch understood this equation is the day he became a great leader," Kerr said during the presentation.

Per Kerr's calculations, Q stands for the "quality of an idea"; A stands for the "acceptance of an idea"; and E is the "effectiveness of the original idea." Kerr explained that an idea's effectiveness depends on how well it is formulated and communicated, multiplied by how many people accept it. If no one accepts a brilliant idea, it has no real value. 

Ev Williams 


Williams knows how to disrupt the media business--he co-founded Blogger, Twitter, and Medium. He also knows how to start and run a company successfully. In a recent post on Medium (appropriately enough), he revealed his "Formula for Entrepreneurial Success." His leadership equation consists of five parts added together to make a whole--a successful entrepreneur:

1. Work with amazing people.

"Don't compromise on who you choose to found your company with and hire. Do not put up with ego-centric personalities or downer attitudes," Williams writes. 

2. Take on big challenges.

"It's pretty simple: Hard things are valuable; easy things are not so valuable," he writes. "Reaching the mountaintop is rewarding because it is hard. If it was easy, everybody would do it."

3. Focus.

"Say no to most things: Features. People. Partnerships. 'Coffees.' Projects. Only a few of them really matter. (Yes, it's hard to know which.) Don't get distracted," Williams writes.

4. Take care of yourself.

"When you don't sleep, eat crap, don't exercise, and are living off adrenaline for too long, your performance suffers. Your decisions suffer. Your company suffers," he says.

5. Love those close to you.

"Failure of your company is not failure in life. Failure in your relationships is," Williams writes.

Last updated: Oct 16, 2013

WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com

Will Yakowicz is a reporter at Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and politics at Patch.com, and his work has been published in Tablet Magazine and The Brooklyn Paper. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.




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