Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat

I spoke to Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, about his best advice

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Adam: Thanks for taking the time to share your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Jim: Not many people know this, but I’ve become fascinated by woodworking recently. My job requires a lot of long hours and travel. When I’m home I enjoy being able to clear my mind and create something. There really isn’t anything like starting with a hunk of wood and ending up with something useful.

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Jim: I was somewhat of a geek growing up, and really, still am today! I’ve always been drawn to computers, which led me to pursue a computer science degree as an undergrad at Rice University.

After college, my first stop was with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), where I worked for 12 years (with a two-year stint attending Harvard Business School in between). At BCG, I saw the inner-workings of literally thousands of companies. My job was to identify and solve problems. I was there to help companies recognize their limitations and figure out ways to overcome them. Because of that, I was recruited by my top client, Delta Air Lines, to help them navigate the complexities they faced following 9/11. I was ultimately named chief operating officer and responsible for more than 80,000 employees.

Then, in 2008, Red Hat tapped me to run their innovative open source software company where I’m still today. It’s this last stop that’s made all the difference because that’s when I realized leadership wasn’t about organizing chaos or controlling process. True, open leadership is about sitting with the unknown, listening, connecting dots with your people, and not being afraid to give up control.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Jim: What effective leadership means is changing as we move to a post-industrial economy. What used to be about command and control has shifted to how do we enable our people so they can bring their best selves to work. A company’s value today is predicated on their ability to react, adapt, and innovate. Leaders need EQ (emotional quotient) skills in addition to hard skills because you can’t order people to innovate. Leaders need to model behaviors that helps them enable their people. Everything else is for naught.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Jim: First, it’s better to give context, not orders. Leaders need to act more like catalysts than dictators. A leader’s job is not about conjuring up brilliant strategies and making people work harder. What they need to do is create the context for their people so they can do their best work. If you get the right people in place and make sure they understand the organization’s purpose, you’re setting the organization and your people up for success.

But before that, you need to be yourself and comfortable in your own skin. You have to learn how to get people to follow you for who you are. Unless you’re good enough to win an Academy Award, don’t act like someone you’re not. Human beings have an uncanny ability to smell insincerity. And when people smell insincerity, they don’t think it’s because you’re trying to aspire to be something that you’re not, they generally interpret it in the most pathological way.

Finally, I would advise leaders to learn how to admit when they are wrong. You have to admit failure, you have to be able to say you screwed up and apologize. I’ve found it’s easier to get people to follow you when you’re open about your mistakes. People have an extraordinary ability to forgive if you’re open, honest, and transparent with them.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Jim: The best advice I ever got is: There are three levels of leadership. Getting people to do something because they have to. Getting people to think what you want them to think and therefore, acting based on their own volition. And then getting people to believe in what you believe in and then they’ll walk through walls for you. A great leader gets their people to believe and walk through walls to make things happen.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Jim: Take care of our environment. We all rely on the environment and I would encourage everyone to do what they can to positively impact it. One thing that I do, at the end of each year, I tally up all the flights I have taken and purchase carbon credits to offset them.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Jim: I don’t have that much free time, but any extra time I have is spent with my family. We can all prioritize and make choices for how and where we spend our free time. I encourage people to find a rhythm where they have enough time for the things that are important to them like family, friends, mental and physical health, and more. One thing I’ve learned is that building a great career is a marathon not a sprint, so making sure you’re getting what you need outside of work is important.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Jim: Culture is an output, not an input. Leaders need to recognize that culture is based on a series of learned behaviors that come from how we lead our organizations. We create our organizational culture by the actions we take; not the other way around. To truly change an organization’s culture, it’s a transformation of self for the leader.

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