My Son's Inquiry About Leadership

Since this is the week my book (March 2015) officially comes out in bookstores, I would be remiss not to acknowledge it. Writing a book has been on my bucket list for a while so I’m excited and proud to have completed such a monumental goal. The people that have read the book have told me they have found it to be very interesting, entertaining, and educational for which I am really delighted as those were my goals.

My brother-in-law even asked me why it took him to have to read my book to get to know me. I didn’t have a good answer! The book is available on Amazon. If you’re so inclined after reading the book I would love for you to submit a review.

Most book buyers appreciate reading about what others thought about the book so it would be great to have a number of reviews so that those who don’t know me can assess whether they want to take a chance on it.

Now let me turn to the subject at hand for this week: Leadership. My son recently started a master’s program in coaching and sports administration and one of his assignments is to interview a business person and coach to learn about their leadership philosophies and styles and see how the two might intersect.

He asked me if I would be the business person he could interview. My initial response was to tell him to read my book and he gave me a look of bewilderment and disgust as if there’s no way he’s going to spend that much time trying to divine my leadership philosophy when he could just talk to me about it. He was definitely onto something.

It not only represented a nice opportunity to connect and communicate on a different level than we normally do, but it would also help me to think about the subject more comprehensively and allow me to put my thoughts in writing.


Jacob and Gary Carmell

Not surprisingly, as I can now officially say I’m an author, I have found that writing is one of the best ways for me to organize my thoughts and force me to think more deeply about a subject that I feel is important at the time. For example, we have a lot of properties in Houston and with the drop in oil prices, I felt we needed to think about the ramifications on the Houston economy and our apartment portfolio so I recently wrote an article for our investors on this topic.

I’ve written extensively about interest rates given our bias towards variable rate loans. I have also done a deep dive into the CWS organization to allow our investors to have a better understanding of who they have invested their hard-earned capital. When in doubt I tend to turn to writing. I don’t always know where it will lead, but it often is a great path to more clarity.

Personal Definition of Leadership

The first question asked about a leader’s personal definition of leadership and their general philosophy. I believe that leaders ask what needs to be done and then make sure they have the right people doing the right things and cost-effectively providing the resources to help them be successful. It is important that leaders leverage their strengths and delegate the rest to others.

Organizations succeed by taking advantage of opportunities within their core competencies and avoiding risks that can derail it financially. Strong leaders help identify those opportunities and build the teams and obtain the resources to profitably exploit them while steering the company away from danger.

Unfortunately, many a company has chased a growing market and set of opportunities without paying enough attention to cash management. As obvious as this sounds it still needs repeating that companies go out of business when they run out of cash and lose access to cost-effective capital. It is vitally important to have a good handle on the cost of acquiring new customers and once you have them the profitability of servicing them.

As I often like to quote Bob Dylan when he says that “he not busy being born is busy dying,” leaders must balance the long term with the short term. They must ensure they have built teams with strong execution capabilities and a system of accountability while also looking ahead and making investments and organizational and personnel decisions based on where the leaders believe the industry is headed. It’s vitally important that they also have a ruthless filter so they can say no to help prevent the organization from getting off track and try to do too many things and not be successful at any of them.

It’s important to make sure people in the organization know your priorities so they don’t have to guess. This helps keep people focused on doing the right things. It’s also vitally important to hire for culture first. Culture is unique to each company and is an intangible strength to help it work cohesively and deal with challenges. As it’s been said, if you hire the wrong person, especially a very poor cultural fit, it’s like polluting the river and moves downstream and can infect the entire organization.

Specific Characteristics of Each Leader

The second question asked was about the specific personal characteristics of each leader that help them lead others. I believe leaders need to adhere to the Stocksdale Paradox, where they are realistic and optimistic at the same time. People tend to want to follow leaders who have a positive outlook and yet are also realistic enough to understand the daily challenges people face.

The future is a series of today’s strung together in which the leader’s job is to move the organization forward just a little bit more so that the cumulative effects are quite positive over time. The words of the Grateful Dead sum this up perfectly when they say, “Just a little bit harder, just a little bit more.  A little bit further than you’ve gone before.”

Leaders have to be skilled at building and managing teams and understanding what each role requires from a skillset and personality perspective and then manage each person based on their specific personalities. One size does not fit all as people are not motivated by the same things and have different communication styles and how they receive and process input. They need to be part-time psychologists. They should also understand that holding people accountable is actually an act of respect for them. No one wants to miss deadlines or let other people down. An effective accountability system is a two-way dialog that results in mutually agreed-upon deadlines, communication throughout the process, and leadership support to help the individual and team meet the established commitments.

Specific Strategies Implemented by Each Leader

The third question related to the specific strategies implemented by each leader to cause positive change among those they lead.

It’s important to enroll people in a vision as they don’t like working in a vacuum or without knowing their efforts are going in a direction that is more rewarding, challenging, and fun. Make it a game such that people can see how they and the team are performing throughout and progressing towards victory. It’s also critical to be authentic and honest. Don’t sell people because they know when you’re not telling them the truth or sugar coating. I have found that the greatest buy-in has come during our most difficult times.

We were forced to establish a clear mission that was honestly communicated and resulted in universal buy-in as the entire organization knew there was a lot at stake. It’s also incumbent about leaders to celebrate success, share financial rewards, and offer people the chance to grow and take on new challenges. Positive change is also brought forth by acknowledging successes and deal with disappointments openly and honestly in a manner that is searching for what went wrong to figure out how to do better next time versus placing blame. Finally, nothing can derail an organization and a leader’s attempt to create positive change if ethics are comprised. There should be no tolerance for unethical employees because one bad apple can take down an enterprise.

The final interview question asks how each leader maintains their integrity, motivation, and good health while serving as a leader.

It’s vital to find a larger purpose to serve and to filter my actions through the New York Times test.  If the actions I’m taking were on the front page of the New York Times would I still carry them out?  I’m personally motivated by our purpose statement of Enhancing Lives The CWS Way. When times get tough I’m fighting for the hard-earned capital our investors entrusted with us, the livelihoods of our employees, my competitive zeal of hating to lose and disappoint, and taking care of my family. Business is truly a marathon with a series of sprints that can be mentally and physically taxing. It’s especially difficult to unplug when we have access to email and texts at any time. It is very important to focus on mental and physical health. Exercise, eat right, take vacations that allow one to unplug, have hobbies, invest in relationships, and give back to others. All of these help round out our humanity and improve our stamina, stability, focus, and effectiveness.

At the end of the day, leaders try to see where the puck is going to be versus where it is now in the immortal words of Wayne Gretzky.  They must create and communicate a vision (a profitable one), build strong teams, establish priorities, hold people accountable, adjust when necessary, address breakdowns quickly and at the source, and celebrate success.

Over to You:

What is your leadership philosophy? How would you have answered these questions? 


7 comments on “My Son's Inquiry About Leadership
  1. Bob Serr says:

    Gary another very good read, so who was the coach your son interviewed?

  2. Shellie Albosta says:

    I found this very authentic and a wonderful reminder of the role and responsibility of a leader. I am going to print and reference this often to ensure I am being the best leader that I can be.

  3. Gary – I love all of your insights. It is very refreshing to have someone like yourself share the mind/body/spirit theory with others in this challenging business. One point that I always like to make is “There should never be a surprise in a review” – goes along with your point on communication. If there are surprises to an employee in a review, the fault lies with the leader/mentor.

  4. Ibsen Alexandre says:

    Gary, this is great post and writing- as usual. Seeing that your son Jacob is now interviewing you about leadership must be very exciting. Interestingly, the chapter in your book that focuses about the challenges that occurs in one’s life, the trials that are out of our control, the tests that can suddenly hit a loving family instantly which may lead through setbacks and melancholy, truly challenge one’s ability to lead during such a time. A great leader still finds ways to maintain great composure and exhibit great leadership abilities during intervals of incomprehensible hardship in business and life. I would also add that, a leader must not only be a visionary but also someone who can master the art of dealing with all sorts of life’s scenarios while maintaining emotional self-control for the better good of the organization, the team, his/her family and every one he/she interacts with.

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