Define Yourself—or Others Will

Leaders who don't explain their big decisions can wind up in big trouble

What are the keys to insuring a strong start in a leadership position? — Christopher Finlay, Chicago

You could fill a book—in fact, you could probably fill dozens—with all the ways to get off to a good start as a leader. Get to know your people, and learn what makes each one tick. Don't pretend you know everything about the job. Ask a lot of questions, and really listen to the answers. Figure out what it takes to win. Familiarize yourself with the competition. Worry about what market changes could kill you, if not next year, the year after. Pay visits to the customers who keep you alive. Pay longer visits to the customers who have recently kissed you goodbye. The list goes on and on.

But one thing you have to do as a new leader, and from then on out, is define yourself. Make sure your people know what you stand for. Under no circumstances, no matter what the size of your company or the business you're in, should you ever let the members of your team guess about your principles or why you make tough calls the way you do. Tell them yourself, and tell them again and again.

Now, we're not saying you need to spend every minute of every day delivering a stump speech about your "platform." Communication at its best is two-way, and leaders should always be engaged in dialogue with people throughout the organization. But in times of change or crisis, if you don't talk openly about your reasoning, you're in trouble. Take, for painful example, last week's mess involving President Bush and his veto of a budget increase proposal for the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

This column is not about either the merits or failings of SCHIP, a state-federal health insurance subsidy program that Democrats and some Republicans were pushing to increase by $35billion over five years, adding 4 million people to the 6.6 million who are already participating. It is about how the President blew a massive leadership opportunity by staying quiet about his reasons for opposing the program's expansion. As the Associated Press reported: "In only the fourth veto of his PresidencyParagraph the White House has sought as little attention as possible."

No, no, no! Especially when it comes to controversial decisions, leaders must communicate more, not less. Sure, Bush explained his veto in his weekly radio address. That's when he said he blocked the expansion of SCHIP because it was too costly, and, since it replaces private coverage with government payouts, represents a dangerous move toward nationalized medicine. But the SCHIP veto was a huge principle vote, not only for the Bush Presidency but for his party going into the 2008 elections. For those reasons, Bush had to get out there in a big way. He could have, for instance, appeared on national TV and explained, in simple terms, what principles motivated his decision. In any medium, he should have communicated beyond a doubt that his veto was about deeply held values and building a better America.

Instead, the President created a leadership vacuum. Worse, he gave his opponents an easy pitch to hit, which they did, depicting him as heartless toward children. You won't likely face such hardball in your new leadership role, but somewhere along the way you're bound to discover that what's true in politics is true in business. If you don't define yourself, especially in tough times, you can be certain someone else will do it for you.

I'm a large-account sales guy who loves his job and wants to keep doing it. But how can I stay excited and current so I don't become "the old guy"? — Anonymous, Hartford

Here's one surefire way: Become a great mentor. Keep selling, of course. You're obviously good at it. But take all that love you have for selling, plus all the insight you've gained, and spread them around. Coach, teach, inspire. You'll feel younger every year.

Omer Murphy is the perfect example. He was one of the best salesmen that GE Plastics was ever lucky enough to employ, adored by customers, managers, and peers. He closed every deal with everyone feeling good. Then, in his early 50s, Omer asked to coach young salespeople as he did his job. He went on calls with them and, afterward, offered constructive critiques. Over time, he created what came to be "Omer's Army," a legion of energized producers, thanks to his mentoring.

The relationships energized Omer, too. Until he died in 2001, he remained young at heart. Take his lead, and so will you.

Jack and Suzy Welch await your questions. E-mail them at For their video podcast, go to

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