I don’t want you to be me
you should just be you
—Chance The Rapper, “Wanna Be Cool“
In 1993, the professional basketball player Charles Barkley famously said: “I am not a role model. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean that I should raise your kids.” Many people thought this statement was very clever, and it eventually led to a Nike ad campaign.
The campaign became so popular that a reporter asked Barkley’s teammate Hakeem Olajuwon if he was also “not a role model.” Without hesitation, Olajuwon replied, “I am a role model.”
When the reporter asked why the difference between the two teammates, Olajuwon explained that Charles Barkley was one person in his private life and a totally different person in public. He believed that maintaining a dual personality was extremely stressful, and Barkley was constantly looking for a way out. Olajuwon then pointed out he was the opposite of Barkley: exactly the same in public and private. As a result, he said he was indeed a role model.
This interview revealed a fundamental key to leadership: In order to be a great leader, you must be yourself. If you try to be someone else, not only will you not be able to lead, but you’ll be ashamed to have people emulate you. In essence, Barkley was saying: “Don’t follow me. I don’t even like me.”
In some ways this may seem obvious, but very few managers are able to be themselves in business. For example, an excellent co-worker (we’ll call him Stan) gets his first promotion to manager, and everyone is excited. But once Stan becomes a manager, he stops being Stan and becomes “Manager Stan”—and magically transforms into a dick. He feels like he has to establish his authority, so he stops treating you like a person and starts treating you like someone he has to impress with his power. Nobody likes or follows “Manager Stan.”
At the CEO level, it’s more subtle. It often comes from modeling a successful leader who isn’t you and whose methods you haven’t internalized or whose best practices don’t apply to your company. For example, a CEO might read about Jack Welch’s “rank and yank” process where he ranked all the General Electric employees and eliminated the lowest performers. The CEO might think that he should do the same thing. But he hasn’t really thought about it at a deeper level than “Jack Welch did it.” So, he brings it to his managers and one of them says, “But we’ve gone through this super intense hiring process where we are only allowed to hire the very top people in the industry. Our bottom 10% is pretty darned good.” The CEO thinks to himself, “That’s right. In fact, I set up that process.”
At that point, the CEO is stuck. Does he stick to his guns even though he doesn’t really believe them? Or does he risk appearing wishy washy by reversing himself on the spot? He’s painted himself into a corner by trying to be Jack Welch rather than be himself. If you aren’t yourself, you won’t even follow you.
Similarly, a board member may say to a CEO: “I don’t think your CFO is as good as the CFOs of other companies I am on the board of.” This is a super tricky statement for the CEO to deal with. She doesn’t know those other CEOs. She can’t interview them and compare. How does she respond to that? The common and wrong thing to do would be to back to her CFO and tell him to be better in front on the board. At that point, the CEO has refused to have a point of view and make a stand. She is trying to be what the board member wants, but not really succeeding. Her CFO will be super confused, because he has no idea what he’s done wrong. He may try to transform into something he’s not and also lose his leadership mojo. The right thing to do is say to the board member: “Great. Please let me know what about those CFOs you think is better and introduce me to them.” Then the CEO should spend time with those CFOs, see if she comes to the same assessment and decide how important those skills are for her company. If the skills are critical and the delta is real, then she can go back to her CFO and be herself. If she disagrees with the board member, she can be herself with him too.
Finally, a note of caution: If you follow the first rule of leadership, not everybody will like you. I know this, because not everybody likes me. In fact, I am sure there is someone reading this right now saying, “Who does that old, white man think he is quoting Chance The Rapper?”
Maybe they have a point, but I love Chance and “Wanna Be Cool” inspired this post. So go ahead and hate. I am OK with that. I don’t want to be cool. I just want to be me.
This post originally appeared in Quartz.