Leadership and Debra Benton

The woman in the picture is executive coach, speaker and author Debra (D.A.) Benton.

You know that leadership is something I think about a lot. One of the most useful reference frames about leadership I’ve ever heard (and I owe this one to a select group of Stanford faculty) is that it’s not practical to think of leadership as the product of intrinsic charisma you’re born with: if you deconstruct leadership, it boils down to a set of behaviors you choose to apply deliberately, consistently and relentlessly.

Debra is not an academic; I think her books are among the clearest and most usable guides to those behaviors. I met Debra a couple of times many years ago and we’ve occasionally stayed in touch over time. She lives and breathes what she preaches. You can even tell from reading her: she’s not just telling you to “use short, sharp sentences”: she does it.

Her latest book, CEO Material, re-uses some of the themes in her previous books – the basics of her teachings haven’t changed, after all – synthesized in a crisp package. It’s all about how you get to be described as “memorable, impressive, credible, genuine, trusted, liked, cool, calm, collected, charismatic, comfortable, competent, and confident.” And that’s the way she is. Sure, it’s hard work, and I’m particularly bad at some of it (smiling to strangers in an elevator, striking up a pleasant conversation with the person sitting next to you on the plane), and I don’t do it all. But what I do, I do because I believe it works.

One more thing I particularly like: Debra’s style teaches you to infuse reciprocity and exchange (the stuff that academics tell you influence is made of) with kindness, courtesy, decency and integrity. There’s no sustainable leadership without integrity. Make all the fun you want about American leadership literature as self-help for aspiring leaders. As long as there is a moral compass guiding those leadership behaviors, I’m fine with it.

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