Big Boss Man

I’ll never forget the imagery. Dick Egan, founder of EMC and Chairman of the Board, exiting a helicopter at the Hopkinton EMC HQ in 1995. There he was. Tall, tough looking, even in his suit, and completely ignoring anyone he didn’t know. Cigarette in hand; still the tough Marine that survived the Choisin Reservoir battle in 1950. He truly was a tough Marine. I sensed it immediately.
I had an advantage over most at that moment. I knew all about the horrific battle of the “Frozen Choisin”. If you don’t know this history of the Korean Conflict and how the US Army and Marine Corps were ambushed at Choisin Reservoir in late November and December of 1950 I strongly suggest you read about it on Wikipedia. For 17 days and nights the United Nations forces fought their way back to the coast for sea evacuation. Cut off and surrounded they endured freezing conditions so severe that if you lay down to go to sleep in the snow, you died from hypothermia. They were surrounded and out manned at least 2:1.
I stood in awe of this man and what he had done with his life. I also instinctively understood the culture I had entered. The culture was crafted by one of the few survivors of Choisin Reservoir. The harsh tactics, never say die tough atmosphere was not unknown to me. I had seen it before too: In the Israel Defense Forces. It was no surprise to me that the engineering team for Symmetrix were all Israelis and IDF veterans and the core group: from the same tank battalion. Not surprising at all and one of the secrets of my success that year was the non-English speaking communications between me and engineering. We understood each other in a way that was easy for us. We had the common background of our language being Hebrew and all of us veterans of the IDF.
Back to Big Boss Man….who doesn’t want to be the “Guy” exiting the helicopter with no time to speak with people he/she doesn’t know?
I’ve learned over the years that my image of leadership has changed radically since that time. No offense to Dick Egan, he was most certainly a great leader. Egan didn’t start EMC stepping out of helicopters like he did in 1995. He started with two other partners; probably a second mortgage on his house; and by hiring young family members whom he knew he could trust. Smart.
One of the greatest leaders I work with is an attorney at a large firm in Philadelphia. He doesn’t strike you at first as the leadership type. He is reserved, well spoken, and generally wants to help people. However over 25 years of working together as our High School Class Co-Chairmen, I have learned what an incredible leader he actually is. Together, but clearly under his leadership, we have taken a motley group of people connected mainly through their years in High School, and forged a very benevolent group of graduates. So benevolent that for almost a decade we have outperformed in terms of activity, giving, involvement and goodwill, all the other classes. At a later time, we added another Co-Chairman to the team, also an exceptional leader. Part of the Level 5’s strategy was not to take the entire leadership role for him, but to carve out niches for those that could add the most value to the team in complimentary areas. Another huge clue that he truly is a level 5 leader as described in Jim Collins excellent work, “Good to Great”.
This brings me back to level 4 leaders or simply put: cults of personality. Was Steve Jobs a level 5 leader? No. He was clearly level 4. Yet he achieved great success. Collins would fault Jobs for not preparing a successor to take over his role. Although I bet Jobs tried, I doubt it was in his DNA to do so and it might have been too late by the time he tried. The jury is still out on that one, but based on this past fall’s roll-out of IOS for the iPhone it doesn’t look good for the transition of leadership at Apple. Jobs didn’t claim to be a level 5.
So who am I? Asher eyhyeh Asher in Hebrew: “I am that I am” which is what God told Moses when asked by Moses who he was. A brilliant answer on so many levels. God clearly is a level 5 leader. As for me, no doubt, level 4. I won’t get to that next step, or at least from the data Collins assembles in “Good to Great”, I certainly fit the archetype level 4.
I’ve shed many of my classic level 4 traits. The need for huge homes; fancy cars; flamboyant lifestyle. I don’t need them anymore. They don’t define me. We all like nice things but level 4 leaders have to have their bragging rights. In one of the most pathetic exchanges I ever witnessed , I saw two level 4 CEO’s brag about where they lived; who had the bigger house; what kind of cars they drove; who had the prettier wife; how active their sex lives were….all the while smiling at every brag or insult… two chimps. That might be an insult to chimps!
This week we had our 2014 kick-off for Toltec Global Services. We’re a small company. Yet we had a kick-off where I covered all of our business history, present and future. I assessed our core strengths and our weaknesses/vulnerabilities. As I looked out on the few people in attendance I was thinking: this is how it all starts. A small embryonic group like this. SAP started in 1969 with a small embryonic group. Several decades later Hasso Plattner, the founder was traveling the world in his own private Gulfstream.
We spent the last hour of the three hours talking about corporate culture. It was not new to me why that was important other than to lay out for the company, and its future leaders, what my vision would be for the culture. That was the most productive hour we spent. Defining how we were going to be. I decided that we would adopt the honor code from West Point: I will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.
I’ve seen people, many people in business, pretend to be honest, but they aren’t. Is business about being honest? That’s the tougher question. Some people believe, actually many people believe that it isn’t about being honest. It is simply a means to making money and honesty is an easy casualty along the way. The larger question comes down to what exactly do I mean by honesty? I’m not even sure how to answer that question. Today it is in fashion to use the word “transparency”. That is the new business speak for being open and honest. However every time I hear the words, “to be completely transparent” or “In the name of transparency” I know I am about to get a half truth. If we’re all so transparent then how can we even conduct business operations? We’d all have to share our policies, tools, trade secrets, gross margin etc. to really be transparent.
Leadership, culture, honesty, transparency…..values. All of this is what is on the Big Boss Man’s mind every day.


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One Comment

  1. In all fairness to Dick Egan, he was definitely a level 5 leader. He transitioned EMC in 1989 to a new CEO named Mike Ruettgers. Egan stayed involved and was the most active Chairman of the Board I’ve ever observed. In his role as COB he helped CEO Ruettgers prepare the company for the radical changes of massive growth. He stood watch over the company and most importantly his family. I never got to meet him or know him, but I saw his impact at every level.

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