Teddy Roosevelt leading the charge from the front.

Teddy Roosevelt leading the charge from the front.

Based on my findings from cross-referencing lists of the Top CEO’s in the World, I having been taking a close look at the top three CEO’s leadership styles to find commonalities. In my last post, I discovered that they all share a common trait: transparency, or the notion that we are all in this together, from the bottom of the organization to the top. In this post I will look at their fluid leadership styles, in that they can lead from any leadership position, depending on the situation.

3 types of leadership styles infographic

A Subtle Change in Leadership from the Middle to the Front

Fred Smith, CEO FedEx and the Gambling Incident

blackjack table

Fred Smith loves to tell the story of how Federal Express went nearly bankrupt in 1977, just two years after he started the company with $84 Million dollars. What most accounts of this story agree on is that the company only had $5,000 in the bank, which wasn’t enough to buy gas for the fleet of airplanes to make their deliveries the following week. Smith and his board tried working together to get more money from the bank, but the bank refused.

Smith quickly switched tactics. Against the wishes of his board, he took that remaining $5,000, flew to Vegas and played blackjack, winning (and this is where we start to see inconsistency) anywhere from $27,000-36,000 dollars, just enough to cover the gas and secure the loan the following week, saving the company from bankruptcy. Fred Smith isn’t afraid of leading the charge, trusting his intuition when he needs to, nor is he averse to playing by the rules. It’s this fluid style that makes him an effective leader.

A Fluid Change in Leadership from Front to Back

Howard Schultz, CEO Starbucks and the Fieldtrip to New Orleans

New Orleans Bourbon Street

As I mentioned in my last blog about the Top CEOs and Transparency the biggest turning point for the Starbucks Corporation was during the 2008 recession, when Schultz stepped back in as CEO of the company in order to save it from bad press and low sales. His first act as the re-appointed CEO was one of transparency. But he quickly followed that with a renegade decision of his own, against the advice and wishes of his peers.

In an interview for HBR, Schultz talks about his next act, “ I decided—against the advice of many people at the time, because it had a high cost attached to it—to take 10,000 store managers to New Orleans.”

He owns this decision, but it’s interesting to see how quickly he modestly couches the outcome in “we” language, fluidly stepping back into a middle position, “If we hadn’t had New Orleans, we wouldn’t have turned things around. It was real, it was truthful, and it was about leadership. An outside CEO would have come into Starbucks and cut the thing to the bone. We didn’t do that.” [Italics added for emphasis.]

While he was in New Orleans, Schultz worked alongside his managers to rebuild a home for a family who had fallen victim to Hurricane Katrina. Schultz put the needs of the team first, asking the managers what he could do to better support them in their jobs. He made a decision from the front to take 10,000 managers to New Orleans so he could demonstrate how he leads from the back! Schultz’ transition from one leadership position to another is so smooth it’s almost like sleight-of-hand.

Leading from All Over the Field

Mark Parker, Nike CEO Plays Every Position

LeBron James

LeBron James is like the CEO of the NBA, as he can play any position on the court and excel at it.

There’s the great article in the WSJ called “How Mark Parker Keeps Nike in the Lead,” where the gist of it is that Nike, in spite of its massive market share, still manages to be innovative. The author credits Mark Parker, in that he has balanced design and creativity with marketing and business acumen. What’s interesting is Parker’s positional leadership and how he really can’t sit still. Parker literally plays every position on the field:

  • He is in the front, convincing Tinker Hatfield of his idea until Hatfield agrees with him
  • He is in the middle, wandering down to the Nike Lab to sit and sketch with junior designers
  • He is in the back, hiring P-Rod and letting him design his own shoe without interference
  • He is in the back, elevating the athletes with the mantra, “serve the athlete”
  • He is in the front, taking the blame for the failure of Nike jewelry and Umbro
  • He is in the front, leading the initiative to sell vintage Nikes and creating a new market for the product
  • He is in the middle, collaboratively building sneakers alongside the athletes and designers

The most succinct quote comes from Tinker Hatfield, “The biggest reason Nike is successful today…is Parker balancing all of these complexities…I fall to pieces when the numbers start flying, but he is able to decipher all these things as a businessman and a marketing person and a merchandiser, yet he is equally adept at talking about design…”

A multitude of literature on the Internet makes the case for one leadership style over another, but I think it’s important to not give a preference. A centered leader is fluid, easily transitioning from one leadership position to another in order to lead the organization successfully. I would be remiss to peg any of the Top CEOs in the world as one kind of leader, as clearly their success lies in their ability to adapt to whatever the situation calls for.