Defining Leadership – an interview with Matt Edelman

In the second half hour of our program on “Defining Leadership” I interviewed Matt Edelman, founder and CEO of

What is leadership? Matt suggests looking at leaders as needing to be able to do three things:

  1. Listen, assimilate and integrate information
  2. Communicate intuitively
  3. Anticipate people

These are the skills that allow a leader to inspire people to pursue and achieve a shared vision.

Assimilate Information
When you are in a leadership position, you typically have unique access to a wide variety of information, both across the organization and from outside. You need to be able to integrate that information very quickly and effectively. And you need to use that information. The result can be a set of extraordinarily unique conclusions that a leader can arrive at. By being part of multiple communications across the board, the leader will be in a position to pick up tidbits of information that nobody else is in a position to pick up.

A strong leader then uses that information to come to conclusions — to synthesize the information — to make sense of things in a way nobody else can. And it’s about more than making sense of things — it’s about taking advantage of opportunities.

Communicate Intuitively
The intuitive nature of communication means the ability of the leader to speak the same language as the listeners and followers.

Matt relates the experience he had working in the mobile (phone) industry and reaching out to studios about licensing their intellectual property (IP) for use on mobile platforms. Because of his background in the studio environment, he was able to walk in and talk about the reason they should license their IP, and could “short circuit” the conversation and gain their trust because he spoke their language. Matt understood their concerns.

Many times a leader who is technically oriented can speak right over the heads of the folks in the room, and not even realize that there is a disconnect. A media-oriented leader may try to compel someone, not know their language, and fail to connect. So in order to be effective you have to be able to “communicate intuitively” — communicate in a way that the other person grasps on an intuitive level.

Anticipate People
This is related to the second idea. When you understand people, then even before you need something or need to inspire them, you can understand how to lead them where they want to go, and do it much more easily. That’s a critical skill.

The stamina needed to lead a startup is extraordinary. It becomes easier when you figure out where the people around you — inside and outside the company — really want to go naturally. If you can anticipate that, you can help them get there in a way that also supports your vision and your agenda.

What if there is a disconnect between where you want to lead folks, and where they want to go? That’s common. As a leader you need to have an open mind, and have humility about your vision and your agenda. You need to be able to take into account the differences between your team members’ agendas. You may find that the other person’s situation and issues are such that, as you understand them deeply, it justifies you altering your vision and your agenda. That goes back to assimilating information.

When you find that there is an individual who doesn’t want to go where you feel the group needs to go, you either become effective at shifting your aim because you’ve learned something from that individual, or eventually you’ll decide not to keep that person in the organization.

Or, as Steven Covey puts it in his Seven Habits, “seek first to understand, and only then to be understood.” The leader finds someone who is not on board with his vision, and Matt believes the leader must first find out what the good reasons are for that, to see if there is something here for the leader to learn. Then the leader needs to communicate clearly with this person who is not on board, what is in it for them to get on board with the vision or the revised vision. Only when that fails would it be appropriate to remove that person.

Failures of Leadership
What are examples of failure of leadership, and what did you learn?

Matt worked for a CEO who did not provide consistent direction. This was a CEO with incredible vision and deep industry understanding. However he did not provide consistent direction to his people — making it impossible for them to then work in sync. Matt believes this CEO inspired people to pursue individual agendas, and that led to an enormously dysfunctional organization.

So here was a leader who was good at the intuitive communication — he understood people’s individual agendas — and was able to anticipate people, however he failed to forge those into a single shared vision. By not providing a unifying effect, he accelerated the downward spiral of the organization. So a leader needs not just to empower people — the leader needs to empower people along a consistent path that is in sync with the rest of the organization.

Matt also worked for the new CEO who came in when the board fired the first one. This new CEO did not assimilate information well and was not much of a listener. He proceeded to move the company in a direction that had little to do with the capabilities of the organization or its history to date.

Small firms and startups in particular need very good working relationships between the CEO and the Board, as well as between the CEO and his direct reports.

Is a leader more concerned with people or production?
There is no real conflict. The ultimate goal has to be production. There is no way to achieve results without a good team of good people who work well together. Assuming your vision is a good one, of course.

You should hire uniquely qualified people and set them free to achieve the things they are uniquely qualified to do. That brings results.

How much of leadership is personality?
A lot. Charisma is a huge part of effective leadership. The opportunity for a leader to be effective revolves around the leader’s ability to be charismatic, to communicate in a compelling way, and to really infuse people with their personal charm. This does not have to be through wit or comedic activity, or over the top salesmanship. There is no prerequisite for the type of personality they have or use. Nevertheless there must be a level of charm. Whether it is understated or over the top, it must be there.

One of the stories told many times about Bill Clinton was that he would listen to you, and you got the sense that you were the only thing on his mind, and that he was focused 100% on listening to you. That story seems to touch on both the need to listen well, and on the need to be charming. Being listened to deeply is itself a charismatic and charming thing.

Matt experienced this himself when working at his first job out of college, as an investment banking Analyst in New York. He supported an Associate who had an unbelievable ability to make you think — not only that you were the most important person in the world when he was talking with you and working with you — also that what you were talking and thinking about was very important to the scheme of things. Both you were important, and what you had to say was important.

This Associate went on to be enormously successful. Clearly that skill has served him quite well, and Matt has emulated it. Anybody who wants to be a better leader should practice this sort of listening.

Judging your Own Leadership Ability
Ultimately, Matt says, you can judge your own quality as a leader by your results.

Results here involves more than just profits. It should involve the health and culture of the organization. It includes the loyalty of employees, and the willingness of business partners to continue their business relationships with you. It includes the enthusiasm of the marketplace. Across all those dimensions, results are what reveal the success of a leader.

If your results are not good, you should assume that the first thing you need to fix is yourself. This is where humility is important. Pride can be a confusing emotion. Pride can be good yet you cannot let it get in the way of success. Be patient. When things aren’t working out, you need the constitution to identify what’s wrong. Ask yourself if it’s rooted in what you are doing. If not, then you can keep looking until you find it.

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