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Great CEOs Don't Whine … or Coddle

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When I was a kid, I whined about everything. Drove my parents nuts. My dad used to call me a chronic complainer. Yes he did. All the time. Giving me a hard time about it was his way of teaching me that in the adult world we all have our own problems so nobody is going to care about mine.

Did I listen? Nope.

When I graduated college and entered the workforce I finally learned what my dad had been trying to tell me all those years before. Another engineer and I had a run-in. When we both went crying to our manager like little kids pointing fingers at each other, he said, "I'm not interested. Work it out or I'll fire you both."

We worked it out. Lesson learned … the hard way.

Years ago I wrote a piece called, "CEOs Are Just Like You – Without All the Whining." A few days later, I got an email from one of the executives named in the article. I guess it resonated with his daughter because her father, like mine, was not a big fan of whiners either. That prompted her to call him and him to contact me. He was grateful that my article got his daughter – now a parent herself – to pick up the phone and call.

Incidentally, that was Ivan Seidenberg, longtime CEO of Verizon, now retired.

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The original story was about how three chief executives started at the bottom, climbed their way up the corporate ladder, persevered, and ultimately built two of the Baby Bells from the 1984 breakup of AT&T into $100 billion giants that now dominate the U.S. telecom industry: Verizon and SBC, which later adopted the well-recognized AT&T brand.

Of all the characteristics that molded these men into successful executives, of all the behavioral traits that enabled them to build two of the most prominent companies in America today, the one that stands out for me is this: that complaining and blaming others does no good. Not only that, it deprives you of a quality all great leaders have: personal accountability and self-reliance.

Since these CEOs probably learned that powerful lesson early in life, it taught them to take the bull by the horns and seek innovative solutions for the many hurdles they would face throughout their careers. And every time they looked a challenge straight in the eye and showed it who's boss, that built a little more of their self-confidence and reinforced that they were on the right track.

Which I guess is why at least one of them thought it important enough to teach his kids. When a lesson works for you personally and professionally, you do your best to pass it on to your family and your organization. Which brings us to the somewhat broader point I'm trying to make here.

In many respects, your company or your team is not unlike your family. And just as parents teach their children life lessons to help them grow into happy and mature adults, executives and business leaders bring a unique culture and set of values to their companies – usually based on their own life lessons.

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Before we all sing Kumbaya and call it a day, there's a flipside to this: not all those lessons are positive. Let's face it, we all have dysfunctions and bad habits, most of which we learned as kids. And it takes an enormous and consistent effort to not pass them on to our children and our organizations.

One characteristic in particular comes to mind. The flipside of "no whining" is coddling. Rather than helping young up-and-comers mature, stand on their own two feet and take responsibility for their own lives, coddling enables sustained immaturity, an oversized sense of self-importance and entitlement.

Not to make sweeping generalizations, but there is no doubt in my mind that baby boomers will be known as a generation of coddling parents and many Millennials are certainly not the better for it.

My message is this: "no whining" is the same as self-reliance. That's what builds great leaders, empowered cultures and great companies. It's worth the effort to pass it on. Likewise, it's worth just as much effort to not coddle your employees. That just perpetuates immaturity, egotism and entitlement.

I wouldn't presume to tell you how to raise your kids, but if you want to build a successful career, an effective team or a great company, it's more or less the same thing. Lead and teach by example. Cultivate the good stuff – personal accountability and self-reliance – and not the bad stuff – whining and coddling.

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