Do you want to be a boss or a leader?

I was having a cup of coffee with a former work colleague who lamented over what happened at a meeting with his employer when the CEO said many things that were, shall we say, less than inspiring. The episode really called into question the leadership of the CEO in the eyes of my friend and his colleagues.

I stressed to my friend that, if he wanted to thrive there, he needed to look past this one event and try to find something about the CEO thatinspires him and gives him confidence because you cannot work for someone for whom you have no respect. Consider this the worst that this individual can be, and remember that you got through it, and move on.

Contradicting myself, I then laughed and quoted the movie “Starman,” in which Jeff Bridges’ character tells a government alien-life investigator why his kind are interested in our kind — “Humans are a strange species … you are at your very best when things are at their worst.”

My friend quickly said, “Not all humans.”

That is very true. Not all humans, indeed. But, leaders are not “all humans.” More is expected of them. And, in order to be considered a great leader, even more than that.

Great leaders are at their best when things are at their worst. Anyone can be considered a good leader when things are humming along without a hitch. It is easy to align employees and maintain a great vibe in a company when profits are soaring, or you recently moved into really cool new space and bonus checks were distributed.

Try leading when a new competitor just took significant market share away, when your manufacturing partner’s facility is destroyed by fire, or when the FDA delays your new drug approval indefinitely after you have hired and trained a new sales force. Try leading when Wall Street analysts downgrade your stock, when a licensing deal that you were working on for a year falls through, or when the patent for your main product has expired. These are the times when a boss earns the title of “leader” because these are the times when employees are looking for leadership. They are wondering, “What are we going to do?”; “Will everything be all right?”; “Can we make it through this?”; “I’m frightened.” If the boss does not have something to say and a plan to address these fears, he will never be considered a leader.

Keeping with the “Starman” theme, I offer five lessons to bosses out there who want to be great leaders:

  1. Be your best when conditions are at their worst;
  2. Make maps — that is the job that the alien who cloned Scott Hayden’s body tells a stranger that he does for a living. Leaders make the maps because they know where they want to go, and they have the skill to chart the course. Leaders also don’t look in the rear-view mirror;
  3. Exercise focused power for critical path items.The alien had a handful of silver beads with unlimited power, however, he used them for very specific purposes to achieve his objective with minimal to no collateral damage;
  4. Use some power to save a wounded deer. Build up the weak and teach them to do better, rather than pushing them down to make your own standing greater;
  5. Go very fast at yellow lights. Leaders step up to the front, quickly, at the first sign of a threat to the business.

Just like Jenny Hayden, who watched in awe and helped Starman as he did all of these things and more, your employees are constantly watching you, and even more so when the chips are down. Put on a good show at the most critical and even dire moments, and they might help you, and then even consider you a leader.

Most importantly, do not negate years of good performance — dare I say leadership — with one stupid word or action that you did not think through. Just like moviegoers, employees will turn on the hero when he does not act heroically. The reservoir of good will is a lot shallower than you think.

If you want to be great leader, be a hero.

Joseph V. Gulfo, MD, MBA, is the author of “Innovation Breakdown: How the FDA and Wall Street Cripple Medical Advances” and CEO of Breakthrough Medical Innovations, a team of biopharma and medtech consultants. An Inc.com contributor, he also teaches graduate cancer biology and business and entrepreneurship classes and maintains an educational cancer biology blog. Dr. Gulfo received his MD from University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and his MBA from Seton Hall University.

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