A Counterintuitive Leadership Approach

  • Randall Ussery
  • CEO, Free Range

I’ve been a single dad at times. I also run a small business, and it’s been harder than I expected to care for my son when my partner is out of town for long periods of time. Our eighteen-month-old needs to be fed, told stories, put to sleep, and cared for when he’s too sick for day care. You may say “duh”, but I didn’t know how hard it would be to juggle home, parenthood and work, and I’m thankful my partner will be home tomorrow to share the duties again. In the meantime, I’ve developed enormous empathy for single parents and respect for their effectiveness. The entire process of learning how to be a father, with and without help, has taught me a lot these last few years. In fact, I’ve learned more about business and how to look at my career from fatherhood and family than from any school.

For over the last ten years, I’ve focused single-mindedly on my career. My drive for responsibility and security has fueled every decision I’ve made. For the last two years, I have worked with partners to reimagine a 16-year-old creative studio. The transition has involved changes in people and process. In a commodified and competitive landscape, we’ve shifted from a focus on marketing and communications to a broad and deep expertise in design and innovation. We serve small to mid-sized businesses and NGO’s, primarily purpose-driven organizations. We are on the verge of launching our new brand and formalized positioning and services.

It’s been a radical change effort, and it hasn’t always been smooth. Many people naturally resist change. Some of the bumps in the road have come because we’ve focused on building a great organization.

Here’s an unsafe thought: What if, first, we focused on leading a great life?

The other day I took a walk with my son. I wanted to get to the lake, where we could kick a soccer ball and roll around on the grass. But at the sidewalk outside our home, he stopped to admire an orange flower in the sidewalk box. He pointed and laughed, pushed his nose right into the flower and smelled it, pulled a petal off and tried to eat it. A few steps later he petted a neighbor’s dog, then smiled and waved at a stranger, who laughed and waved in return. He wasn’t in a hurry to get to the lake. He was finding adventure and delight in the journey.

I’ve approached the shift at my organization the same way I set off on that walk to the lake. We developed a vision and we pushed relentlessly toward it, secure in the knowledge that when we achieved these goals, everyone would get on board. Instead, I could have spent more time and energy on the journey, learning as a team, guiding each other down the sidewalk, seeing what we discovered along the way.

So, this is my commitment: To focus on others, learning from them and supporting them in their lives and careers.

I’ll spend more time hiking and reading with my son. I’ll be more present in conversations with my partner. I’ll find out what drives my colleagues and how we can optimize their fulfillment. I’ll share what I’ve learned from my baby boy and friends with a Design Thinking class I’ll be teaching at Babson College this spring. I’ll bring what I learn from those students back to my home and workplace.

I’m reframing what it means to me to be successful. I’m defining it in terms of us, not me. I’ll be a better CEO, but that will come from being a better father, husband, teacher, and friend. Business and leadership will follow.

Want to learn more? Reach out to thrive@freerange.com.