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Learning To Flex Your Leadership Muscles

Before I left to start Okta, CEO Marc Benioff gave me some advice. He said, "Todd, to be a great CEO, you'll need to learn how to be a great leader, not just a great manager."

At that time, I didn’t think much of that suggestion. But over the past three years in founding and growing my own company, I keep coming back to those words and have found them to be hugely valuable. What I've learned—and I suppose what Marc was trying to tell me—is that building a successful company takes an entirely different combination of skills than I was used to showcasing as the head of engineering.

When you're running a large department in a growing company, you flex your management muscle all the time. You are constantly pushing your team and making sure that everyone is focused on the right priorities, that deadlines are hit and that together your group is functioning like a well-oiled machine. What I learned—almost immediately—is that being a CEO utilizes a totally different muscle combination than what I was accustomed to at

Leadership and management are not mutually exclusive by any means. Instead, they each require both muscle groups applied in the right mix—and understanding how they are distinct makes managers better leaders and leaders better managers. And in going from an engineer to a CEO, it’s become much clearer to me how they differ:

Think Differently

When you start a new company—or even a major initiative within an existing company—you have zero momentum. In fact, you will likely even face obstacles designed to impede your creation of anything. To build momentum takes leadership. You need to be bolder, more vocal, and more compelling than anyone else to speak over the naysayers, to inspire your team, to do great things and get your business rolling in the right direction.

It’s not hard to understand why engineering as a functional area lends itself to management rather than leadership when it comes to growing a successful company. Startups often hire a vice president of engineering when they already have some kind of product roadmap, customer pipeline, or revenue machine in place. You likely don't want your engineering team to radically alter direction—instead you want them executing against the plan that’s been laid out. This is exactly why few heads of engineering are considered amazing leaders.

To be a great company leader, you must be able to radically alter the momentum of a situation—and of course, be in a position to do so. Think of Abraham Lincoln taking over the presidency of a United States rumbling quickly toward secession and a divided country. Think of Steve Jobs coming back into Apple when it was weeks away from bankruptcy. Think of JFK’s 1961 address to Congress pledging to put a man to the moon. Talk about radical!

These folks changed the course of history. And I’d argue that most of us entrepreneurs have equally profound visions when it comes to building our own companies. That’s because in building a startup, a strong (often ridiculously ambitious) vision is often the difference between success and failure.

While good management can amplify momentum and bad management can slow it down, only leadership can change its course. If you are tweaking, optimizing, and tuning processes, you might be a phenomenal manager, but you’re not leading. You also won’t see radical change come about.

What’s Your Story?

Communication is hard—really hard. No wonder there's a shortage of great communicators in the marketplace today—particularly at the executive level. Management communication is different than leadership communication—and it's important to know the difference.

Management communication is a lot like engineering: logical and precise. You say what you mean and mean what you say. Just as good product code is delivered without errors or omissions, a good manager delivers information, clearly, crisply, and in a timely manner, often focusing on the details instead of the larger picture. And that allows people to use the logical part of their brain to work on the right things, make the right decisions, and keep things humming along.

On the other hand, leadership communication is about connecting with people at an emotional level. Done well, it hits people in the gut and makes them think. It makes them believe they can do something—even something crazy—and that they can win against all odds. Mel Gibson's inspiring Braveheart monologue is a great, albeit somewhat corny, example of this.

I’ve found that the best leaders use stories to communicate. Over the course of history, poignant stories, whether about tradition, legend, or religion, have kept families and cultures connected for centuries. And if you've spent time with a young child, you notice they think in terms of narrative far earlier than they think in terms of logic.

When we first raised money for Okta, our original slide deck had a bunch of great figures and details, all presented clearly and logically, but the narrative was missing. The response we got over and over again from potential investors was, "Just tell us your story. What is Okta about?" Financials aside, investors just wanted to feel in their gut that we could create momentum and build a successful company.

The next time you present to a large group—or have a one-on-one conversation with an employee—think about whether the goal is to manage or lead. If you want radical change, you need to lead. And if you're trying to lead, you need to tell a story. You need to inspire. If your slides have endless bullet points and are filled with "eye charts" and figures, you are managing, not leading. And probably boring folks too.

Culture: It’s Not As Easy As It Looks

Everyone knows culture is critical to a company's success. Think Google. What is less obvious is that leadership has to consciously create that very culture. When we first started Okta, we tried to "manage" culture. We wrote down our company values, we often reiterated them in meetings and thought long and hard about how we could build a company culture that reflected them.

And while all of that is well and good, over the past three years, I’ve found that what really matters in creating company culture is how I conduct myself. Every day. All the time. It comes down to which actions and attitudes that I validate and reward, and which behavior I discourage, as well as the kind of people I choose to hire. In a lot of ways it’s like raising a family—you have to instill the right values in your children, you can’t just tell them what to do. While management responsibilities can be delegated, leadership cannot, nor can company culture. At the end of the day, it’s about building a team of talented people, developing a culture that expects and rewards excellence, and giving them room to perform to their potential.

I’m an engineer at heart—it’s just how I’m wired—and even with three years under my belt as CEO, it’s still a challenge to approach each day with this "leader" mindset. I learn something new every day and continue to flex that leadership muscle, upping the reps day in and day out. Above all, I’ve learned that it’s an ongoing transition, with new lessons each week, and I imagine that’s what any good leader experiences.

Next time I see Marc, I’ll be sure to ask him.

Todd McKinnon is CEO of Okta. Follow him at @ToddMcKinnon.

[Image: Flickr user David Matter]

Add New Comment


  • Yuecel Karabulut

    Todd: This is one of the best leadership articles I’ve ever
    read. Thanks for sharing your real world experiences. I would like to add a few
    thoughts on this topic. Apologies for the length of my comments in advance.

    I don’t derive the conclusion from your article that
    leadership muscles should only be flexed by the CEO of an organization. Still I
    think a potential conclusion like this may prevent us from creating a scalable
    leadership culture in an organization.  What
    do I mean with this? For an organization to be at its best, it needs leadership
    on all levels and in all directions, so that it has a pool of leadership ready
    to be energized when innovation, change, exceptional effort, or response to
    crisis is needed. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a “distributed leadership”
    would move the company to a chaos because of multiple visions and directions
    that may be created by many folks. The reason for this is because I believe
    leadership is more than creating the vision, showing the direction and inspiring

    There is no doubt that inspirational leadership using strong
    communication skills is extremely important, in particular when leading a
    change. We need to possess inspirational leadership skills if we want to
    motivate exceptional effort. However, inspirational leadership alone is not
    enough to lead innovation, change and exceptional effort. We also need to be
    strong in other domains of leadership. We need to know a) how to build a
    leadership persona from our own personality and values (this creates
    credibility), b) how to forge sound relationships with those we lead (this
    creates trust), c) how to provide coherence and team identity (this makes the
    team/organization context clear), d) how to support our people (this fosters
    initiative and risk-taking), and e) how to make sure our leadership works for
    balance and ethical conduct (the effect here is stewardship).

    So being only an instant inspirational leader is not really
    useful if the leader is not capable of demonstrating supportive leadership. We
    can even go further and say that inspirational leadership won’t work at all if
    the leader is not trusted and credible. And supportive leadership will also not
    work if we don’t know the context/environment where the movement and change is
    happening. Great leadership is really more than being visionary and showing the
    direction. It requires a full range of skills not just only one or other. Great
    leadership is about vision, creativity, authenticity, dedication, courage,
    fairness, respect and concern for followers, understanding of followers,
    creating team identity and coherence, setting high standards, encouraging
    innovation and optimism, protection from politics and distraction,
    blame-control, feedback on individual and team strengths and weaknesses, taking
    ethical decisions, being a good representative of the team, balance
    (long-term/short-term; inside/outside team or organization). I also believe we
    can be all leaders and followers at the same time. Can we be actually good
    leaders without possessing the ability to follow others? Probably not!

    Approaching each day
    with a leader mindset is really a big challenge. To lead others, we must

    first lead ourselves. And this “leading yourself” project is
    a lifetime project, and as you said very well, it is an ongoing transition.


  • Srikanth SESH

    Impressive article Todd.. I believe every person goes thru various phases in his career as a manager/leader, given the situation he's in & the team he's tasked with. These behaviour patterns to me also are influenced, by the team around these individuals, who either drive him/her to be a manger/leader per se..

    Irrespective of the role, once you're able to connect with your team on a common cause, then it's all magic in the workplace..

  • Liane Davey

    Thank you so much for telling a story that so beautifully illustrates the difference between managing and leading.  As an executive team coach, I'm constantly hearing people say that they "don't have time to be a great leader."  Although good management takes time, leadership is about how you show up and what you pay attention to in all those activities you're already doing.  I'll share your story with my clients because it shows the difference so clearly.

  • Amber King

    Agree with Marc. Being a manager is different than being a leader. Just because one is a good manager does not mean that they are great leaders. One factor that makes a great leader is being able to communicate well with the employees and make them understand what the goal is.

  • Dipak M. Patel

    Your stories to inspire and culture through your action....  Fantastic nuggets!  Thank you.

  • Michelle Kvitek

    Great article Todd! As a small business owner, it is just as helpful. Thanks!

  • gottaBnimble

    Great article.  I was part of a panel at SFUSD Academies and Professional Development Office addressing a conference of teachers, I read this article this evening but feel it addressed the panel the same...leadership and management, communicating and engaging all those at different levels requires different thinking.

  • Loraine Antrim

    Leaders who lead rather than manage think with a borader mindset. As a communication coach to executives, I can tell you from first hand experience that the best leaders can articulate their vision, explain their strategy and show how they will execute. But they do it in a way that inspires and motivates. All your insights are spot on, Todd. Thanks for the great post. Loraine Antrim

  • Arun Kumar MK

    Very thoughtful article TODD. Appreciate both your wisdom and also your interest in communicating your message to others

  • philip de wulf

    Great posting. Great insight for/from an engineer. And for many CFO's that want the leadership position.Valid for small and big companies ! thx.