Steve Farber is the president of Extreme Leadership, Inc., an organization devoted to the development of leaders in the business community. He is also the co-founding director of The Center for Social Profit Leadership.
A thought leader in management, Farber is a leadership coach, consultant, and a former consultant for the Tom Peters Company.
Farber’s first book, The Radical Leap, introduced the concept of extreme leadership, which led to a Readers’ Choice Award from Fast Company magazine. Farber hasn’t finished exploring the extreme concepts he created. His latest book, The Radical Edge, is an intriguing fable that connects the lessons of life to the realities of leadership.
We asked Farber about the shift in mindset that leaders must make to re-engage the commitment and ignite the passion of the people around them.
McLaughlin: You’ve talked about The Radical Edge being a “personal” book. What do you mean by that?
Farber: Ultimately, leadership—or what I call extreme leadership— is a very personal endeavor. The ‘radical edge’ stokes your business, amplifies joy and meaning in your life, and changes the piece of the world that you touch for the better, all at the same time. You bring yourself to bear on everything that you do—whether it’s related to work, family, or a cause that you deeply believe in.
It’s all personal and demands reflection on what is really important in your life in terms of, for example, your value system. That comes from your own perspective, so the whole exploration has to be personal. It comes down to who are you? What’s important to you? And how can you exert a positive influence in all facets of your life?
McLaughlin: Well, that is a great guiding philosophy for leadership, but what about it seems “extreme” to you?
Farber: Extreme leadership should be a redundant phrase. There should be no reason to modify the word leadership with extreme because if you’re doing it—and not just posing as a leader—it’s already extreme.
Leadership is about transformation. It’s about taking people to places they’ve never been before; it’s about taking nothing and turning it into something; it’s about taking something good and turning it into something extraordinary. It’s about stretching and growing our own skills and capabilities as human beings and also doing that for the people around us.
Those acts of transformation are already extreme. So extreme leadership is just my way of saying the real deal—the authentic leader, somebody who’s intensely engaged in the act of leadership and not just talking about it, thinking about it, or understanding it, but really in it.
McLaughlin: So the modifier “extreme” may not be necessary but “poor” before leadership might be?
Farber: Yeah, right. And one aspect of poor leadership is incompetence. Some people have the best intentions to accomplish something significant and fire up others, but they’re not competent to do the job in that particular arena. They may have the right idea, the right heart, and the right intent but they are just in over their heads for whatever reason.
McLaughlin: What do you think the role of inspiration is in the context of leadership?
Farber: Inspiration is right at the heart of everything. It’s not just a nice idea and it’s not a just my conclusion. For example, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, the authors of The Leadership Challenge, found over and over again that the real motivation for a leader comes from the heart.
Leadership is an act of love or passion—the expression of deep conviction—and that’s where the inspiration comes from. When I talk about stoking your business, what I’m referring to comes from a desire to do great things for people, whether you’re focusing on customers, or employees, or whatever it might be, and that desire is an act of the heart.
That comes from a deep-rooted desire to make things better—to add value. We throw around these buzzwords in the world of business. We talk about how important customer focus is, for example, or how important responsiveness is. Obviously, you must have strategies and skills to be good at those things, but you won’t get there without the desire—the inspiration—to achieve greatness for others.
We all say we want customers to love doing business with us. Well, we can’t expect anybody to love doing business with us unless we love it ourselves. You can’t unless you’re inspired yourself first. Over the nearly twenty years that I’ve been involved in leadership development, whenever I’ve asked people to describe what is it that leaders do, the word inspiration is always at the top of the list.
McLaughlin: Is the inspiration you need to lead others related to your concept of finding your frequency?
Farber: Yes, exactly. Finding your frequency is a process of clarifying what’s crucial to you. I’m sure many of your readers have participated in exercises to define their values, and that’s great work for individuals, teams, and companies. But finding your frequency takes it to another level, which is where you find out what really defines you. What frequency do you operate on in all areas of your life?
Another way of asking the question is, what’s the one core principle, value, or characteristic that best says who you are? And that’s not at the exclusion of everything else. I think it gets kind of artificial to ask— like Curly in the movie, City Slickers—what “one thing” is important to you? That’s over simplified.
But if you can get clear on what’s most important, then you will find that your other values wrap naturally into that. Your frequency carries through your work, personal life, and social endeavors. Once you get clear on that, you have a basis on which to evaluate your actions and activities.
If, for example, your frequency is service and you’re working in a company that doesn’t value service to its employees, or customers, or on whatever level, then the question you’ve got to ask is how can I bring more of a service attitude into this work environment? And if you can’t, then perhaps you’re in the wrong place.
McLaughlin: Can you give an example of someone that you think has got his or her frequency right?
Farber: Simon Billsberry, the CEO of the tech placement company, Kineticom, is a good example. His company recruits talent for its clients in some ways that are fairly standard and in other ways that are revolutionary. The company started in 2000, and by 2005 it had revenues of $52 million.
No matter who you talk to in the company’s corporate offices, to a person they all love the place. They say it’s because the expectation is that you are authentically yourself when you come to work and that you shouldn’t put on a mask or pretend to be somebody that you’re not.
When I talked to Billsberry about this, his comments were right in line with the frequency idea, but he said it in a different way. He said, “Think about how much energy it takes to pretend to be somebody that you’re not. I’d rather have people use that energy in their work to get better at what we’re trying to do here.”
McLaughlin: It’s interesting that so few organizations encourage you to be yourself at work. Do you have any insights on why organizations have developed that way?
Farber: Somewhere along the line, we created what I think is an artificial separation between our work selves and our home selves. Granted, we do different things at work and at home, but literally, we’re the same people in both places.
I think that we’re evolving to a point where people are beginning to see how ridiculous that line is. That realization is dawning partly because we’re spending more and more of our time at work and the physical boundaries between work and home are dissolving.
Of course, those boundaries have not entirely dissolved, but they’ve certainly gotten more transparent because we’re wired in all the time. Essentially we’re always working and, at the same time, we don’t lose touch with our personal lives either. So we can’t keep up that artificial separation much longer.
McLaughlin: You’ve talked about the importance of knowing people’s stories, not just their resumes. What do you mean by that?
Farber: One of the principles in The Radical Edge is how important it is to know the people that you work with, not as functions or what they do at work, but who they are as human beings.
This is a little provocative for some people who think their personal lives are not anyone’s business at work and, to a certain degree, that’s true. But, contrary to popular opinion, business is very personal. That old saying “It ain’t personal, it’s just business” is ridiculous.
Think about how agitated we get when things are not going well at work, and think about how great we feel when things are going well. We take it all personally, right? Let’s acknowledge that.
So how well do you know your co-workers, teammates, or clients personally? I don’t mean do you hang out with them on Saturday night, but do you know their stories? Do you know where they came from, do you know how they got to where they are? Are you fascinated with finding out who this person is and what makes her tick?
Again, that comes down to a very personal point of view. Once you develop that fascination, it’s much easier to express gratitude for who that person is. So it’s a combination of fascination with and gratitude for the people either that we work with or that we serve in the consultant/client relationship.
McLaughlin: Let’s assume somebody just finished reading the book. What’s the first thing you’d tell that person to do?
Farber: Well, that’s a hard question because I find that people resonate with different things in the book. But one idea that I carry through all of the lessons is the WUP—the wake-up pad. The idea is to approach life in all of its phases as consciously as you can and capture your observations of the world.
Carry a notebook or pad of some sort, whether it’s literally a notebook or an electronic version. Don’t just write down lists of ideas. Make it a practice to be awake enough to notice what’s going on around you, and then ask questions about what the relevance might be for whatever it is that you’re trying to do. This is not a methodology that I invented—lots of people keep notebooks of ideas or do low-level forms of social research like following what people are reading and watching on TV.
But very few people make a regular practice of it. I have this vision of companies and teams where everybody has a version of the WUP and every so often they get together to compare notes and talk about the implications of their observations. So that’s the place I’d like to see everybody start: keep a WUP with you and use it.
McLaughlin: Thanks for your time.
Find out more about Steve Farber, his books, and his services at www.stevefarber.com.