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Red Hat CEO: Leaders must create context for success

Cultivate passion and endorse creative abrasion, Jim Whitehurst says.

By Zach Church  |  November 2, 2016

2016-Jim Whitehurst

Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst

Leaders in today’s disruption-driven business environment must cultivate passionate employees who understand they have an important role in their company’s success, Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst said.

“Your job as a leader is to create the context for people to do their best work,” Whitehurst told students Nov. 1 at an MIT Sloan Innovative Leadership Series talk on campus. The days of the CEO as strategic master are gone, he said. No one person has the answers.

Leaders and managers? They’re more like guides, facilitators, or “synapses connecting the neurons,” he said.

"For virtually every company, trying to think about how you adopt a set of principles to move from a static environment to a fast-moving environment and enabling people to do that is absolutely critical to success,” Whitehurst said.

Whitehurst, the author of "The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance," contrasted his idea of leadership with an older one, in which CEOs defined a strategic advantage against a handful of competitors and issued marching orders for employees to follow.

What should today’s leaders do to achieve success? Here are three ideas from Whitehurst.

Cultivate passion by including people in strategy
Red Hat, an open source software company, is beloved by employees, Whitehurst said. So much so that some have tattoos of the company logo. To stoke that kind of commitment, a leader should focus on the company’s mission, and help employees understand their role in fulfilling that mission, Whitehurst said. That means sharing goals and strategy with everyone and asking for feedback and insight from everyone, too.

“People thirst for that context,” he said. “People want to feel like they have a part in creating their future.”

Endorse creative abrasion
Red Hat makes perennial appearances on Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work list, but that doesn’t mean working there is always a polite experience. Employees thrive on “creative abrasion,” Whitehurst said. Good ideas are challenged to be better and being in the center of a debate is something to be proud of.

“Nobody should be insulted by being criticized,” he said. “You should be insulted by being ignored.”

Be a catalyst for your employees’ ideas
“It's not about figuring out where you want to go and then telling people you want to go there,” Whitehurst said. “It's about creating the context for people to do their best work." He defined context as about 90 percent culture with some general strategic direction and general competitive understanding added.

“My role as the leader in the organization isn't to go take that hill. It's creating the context in which we ultimately decide to take the hill,” he said. “I know I am not smart enough to know where technology’s going, because it’s moving too fast and it’s too ambiguous. But if I create the right context around ‘Here’s generally where we want to go,’ and create the context where people are passionate about what we’re doing … and then have the right organization and dialogue that happens, we will get to the right solution.”