The CEO of Red Hat Gives New Leaders His Best Advice

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Photo courtesy of Jim Whitehurst

I’ve heard from therapists and coaches alike to “fake it until you make it.” And more than one CEO has told me, “There is a lot of acting in leadership.” But is that really true? When it comes to being a leader is it better to be honest or to play a part?

Jim Whitehurst is the president and CEO of Red Hat, the world's leading provider of open source enterprise IT products and services. He's an avid advocate for open source software as a catalyst for business innovation. Since joining Red Hat in January 2008, revenues have more than doubled under his leadership, and they're on the verge of achieving a billion dollars of revenue in a single quarter. He is also the author of The Open Organization.

I recently interviewed Whitehurst for the LEADx Leadership Show, where we discussed the fallacy behind the “fake it till you make it” mentality. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)

Kevin Kruse: What leadership advice would you give to a new first-time manager?

Jim Whitehurst: I think the biggest problem that I see that first time managers deal with is they think there's a persona that they should act into. And what I always say is unless you're good enough to go win an Academy Award, don't act like someone you're not. Because human beings have an uncanny ability to smell insincerity. And when people smell insincerity they don't think it's because you're trying to aspire to be something that you're not, they look at it and generally interpret it in the most pathological way.

So what I always say to first-time managers is be yourself, be willing to say, “I don't know.” Be willing to say, “Hey, I'm learning.” People appreciate that and have a lot of patience for people who are going to be open like that. But don't go in saying, “Well I need to act like I know.” Or, “I need to be overly directive.” You need to be yourself and be comfortable in your own skin, and learn how to be effective in getting people to follow you from who you are, not who you aspire to be.

Kruse: So, transparency is important. But how much of your worries do you share with your team members?

Whitehurst: Well before Red Hat, I ran Delta Airlines through a bankruptcy restructuring. So believe me, I've been in the bad times as well. And I guess in some ways it's easier, in some ways it's harder. And what I mean by that is, it's harder in the sense that being open, you have to admit failure, you have to say we screwed up, or I screwed up, or I'm sorry. And that's hard, and for your ego it's hard, and putting yourself out there is hard.

And when I say it's easier, it actually is easier to get people to follow you when you open up and say that. I think in general humans have an extraordinary ability to forgive if people are open, honest, and transparent with them. So at Delta going in and saying, “Look, we're in trouble, and I'm sorry. And this is where we are, and it's gonna be difficult. And I was part of creating the problem. I think we know what the solution is.” People rally around someone who's authentic and willing to be open and vulnerable, frankly, in a time like that.

So it's harder personally because you take a bigger ego hit, but it's actually almost easier to get people to follow you in a tough time if you're open and honest about it. Because they feel like they've given something back to you. It's like “Hey, you were vulnerable, I forgive you.” And there's this reciprocity around it, which makes it easier.

Kruse: What are you most excited about these days at Red Hat?

Whitehurst: Open source, which is what Red Hat is almost completely built around, you know 10 years ago that was all about cheaper alternatives to existing software. So we have an operating system that is, we would argue, cheaper and better than Windows or Unix. And we have an application server that's cheaper and better. And that was great for a while, and we continue to save our customers a lot of money with that. But one of the amazing things happening now, because of the Web 2.0 companies, is all the new innovation that you hear about happening first in open source. So big data, machine learning, AI, DevOps, all of those things are happening first and almost exclusively in open source. So our ability to help our customers not just save money, but to be able to innovate, to create whole net new businesses has just exploded.

So much of the main drive of Red Hat now is not, “We help save you money,” it is, “We can help enable you to compete in a digitally transformed world.” So it's accelerated our growth, it's positioned us to be able to help our customers even more, which is just a phenomenal opportunity and responsibility.

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Whitehurst’s approach to leadership is refreshingly simple: don’t try to act the part, and embrace “I don’t know.” In the end, people can sense insincerity, and it’s not worth the risk of starting a professional relationship with distrust. Be honest, and the rest will follow.

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Kevin Kruse
NY Times bestselling author, Inc 500 entrepreneur, and keynote speaker on Wholehearted Leadership and Extreme Productivity. Download 'How Millionaires Plan Their Day: A 1-Page Tool' at http://kevinkruse.leadpages.co/1page/