By Alex Zlatin
The Wikipedia definition of leadership is “the action of leading a group of people or an organization.” Pretty clear and self-explanatory, right? Not really. The more I tried different variations of the word “lead,” the more encouraged I became to write this article.
Originally I was supposed to follow in my father’s foot-steps and study engineering. But for a 21-year-old kid fresh out of the military, management seemed like you could sit back in your leather chair, legs crossed on the desk, and enjoy minimal “grunt work” while getting paid the most. So I started business school in the evening while working full-time. Starting as a regular security guard, I was quickly promoted to my first supervisory role. From there I never held a nonmanagerial position. It is only when I earned my first (and only) CEO role that I understood the real meaning of leadership — and the difference between leadership and management.
In my eyes, a manager is an individual who ensures work is performed to achieve a certain outcome. A leader is an individual who gives meaning to why certain work needs to be done, in a certain way, to achieve a certain outcome. These subtle differences in definitions are of enormous magnitude. People will perform tasks and take actions because they feel they are expected to. That is the main pitfall of management. Leadership is about empowering people with a sense of purpose and revealing the reasons why certain behavior is expected.
That’s some deep and heavy stuff to digest, right? Not really. You cannot lead without knowing your own purpose. Why is it that you do what you do? Now that is deep. I am a proud flag-bearer for Simon Sinek’s movement of creating a world where people feel fulfillment every single day (even the bad days). I brought his ideas to my software company’s employees and to our clients (dentists who own a private clinic). Following Sinek has helped shape my understanding of my own purpose (my “why”), which I then used to define the company’s “why.”
When I took the role of CEO at Maxim Software Systems, we were facing challenges such as:
- My appointment came at the same time as ownership change, which contributed to a loss of trust by both employees and clients.
- A toxic culture from previous leadership.
- New owner has stayed employed as CTO.
- Lack of general direction and strategy.
It was obvious to me that I needed to define our purpose in order to succeed as a leader. After a wasted hour Googling “company vision” and “create purpose for company,” I realized this task was substantially harder than I originally thought. I discovered that the times when I feel most joy are the times where my advice helps someone. Once I discovered this, it consumed me like a drug addiction, and I started practicing it every day.
Defining our purpose as “empowering health professionals through intelligent software while touching their hearts through exceptional service” was a clear way to explain to all employees why our company exists. When I evaluate marketing pieces or employees’ performances or face a big dilemma, I refer back to the purpose for guidance. It is a compass for all decisions, big and small.
Once you know why you are here and why you do what you do, the next step is the how. This is why we created our core values. These describe the expected behavior of all employees. Employees’ performances, especially when things go wrong, should be evaluated not only by the processes they followed/did not follow, but also based on the company’s core values. Ours are:
- Have Integrity — Be honest, have strong principles.
- Be Persistent — Keep trying despite challenges.
- Be Adventurous — Try new ideas and experiences.
- Be Inquisitive — Strive to know more today than you knew yesterday.
- Be Curious — Aspire to understand everything and everyone around you.
Leadership can be a very lonely job. It only works if you know your own purpose and you are able to take on a leadership role in a company with an aligned purpose. Leading people is about giving their work a greater meaning and pushing them outside their comfort zone where learning and self-improvement happen. Dealing with people is a huge challenge, yet it carries great rewards for you (if done right). If you would like to discuss leadership, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and mention this article. I’d love to connect and learn more about your unique challenges.
ALEX ZLATIN brings over 10 years of management experience to his role as CEO of Maxim Software Systems. He has streamlined processes companywide and helped to ensure seamless day-to-day operations at Maxim.