Steve Farber is the president of Extreme Leadership, Incorporated, an organization devoted to the cultivation and development of Extreme Leaders in the business

A subject-matter expert in business leadership and a frequent guest on news-talk shows around the country, Farber is a senior-level leadership coach and consultant who has worked with and spoken to a wide variety of public and private organizations in virtually every arena and at all organizational levels. Extreme leadership is Steve’s passion, and he does it with a style that is part strategist, part social commentator and all energy.

His latest book,
“Greater Than Yourself: The Ultimate Lesson In Leadership,” was a Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller. His second book, “The Radical Edge: Stoke Your Business, Amp Your Life, and Change the World,” was hailed as “a playbook for harnessing the power of the human spirit.”

And his first book,
“The Radical Leap: A Personal Lesson in Extreme Leadership”, is already considered a classic in the leadership field. It received Fast Company magazine’s Readers’ Choice Award and was recently named one of the 100 Best Business Books of All Time.

STEVE FARBER: The pleasure is mine, Chris. I’m glad to be here.

CHRIS ATTWOOD: Let’s plunge right into it. What do you say?

STEVE FARBER: Yes, absolutely. Fire away.

CHRIS ATTWOOD: You know the title of this series is the Passions of Real Life Legends. Would you share with us how your passions, the things you care most about, have led you to the work you do today?

STEVE FARBER: Sure. My whole point of view around leadership that’s developed over the years is very congruent with what you, Janet, and your colleagues have been talking about as well, which is that passion, the heart, and love of what you do is really at the core of great leadership, business, and a fulfilling life. For me, it’s driven everything that I’ve done, and it’s taken a few curves along the way.

In other words, the things that I was passionate about when I was a younger man are not the things that I’m quite literally pursuing today, but it’s driven everything I’ve done. My original passion was music, actually. I started out trying to be a musician. The passions for being a musician and having a family weren’t very congruent, at least not in the part where you’re supposed to feed that family. That’s when I got into business.

This was over 20 years ago. The greatest lesson that I learned about passion was in starting in a business I hated. I learned about the importance of it by experiencing the antithesis of it in my own work life. I started out in the commodities business, which is not only a stressful business but also a very speculative business. That means that clients are more likely to lose their money than not. I’m an entrepreneur by nature at my core.

Even though I started as a broker working for somebody else, I ended up forming my own company. I had my own small shop, which was a very odd place to be because from the outside looking in, you could say that I was living the proverbial American dream. I was my own boss, and I had my own company, my family, and the whole thing. The only problem with it was I hated it.

CHRIS ATTWOOD: I have to tell you, Steve, that I think many of our listeners can probably relate to this because we hear from them all the time about, “How do I get out of what I’ve been doing?” I think we’re all very anxious to hear how you moved from being in something you hated to getting paid for doing something that you love.

STEVE FARBER: That was the next big radical leap I made in my own life. I was faced with the realization that on the one hand I had my own business, but on the other hand, I hated it. I made the choice at that moment to get out. Some people are faced with that and make the choice to stay in because that’s the way they’ve learned to make a living.

For me, it was killing me, literally, physically, emotionally, and on every level. I made the decision to get out. I have to say, Chris, I made the decision to get out before I knew what I wanted to get into.

CHRIS ATTWOOD: That’s kind of scary.

STEVE FARBER: It was very scary. I really kind of experienced it as having no choice in the matter. What I was clear on was that I knew there was something I was “supposed to be doing.” I had no doubt about that. I just had no idea what it was. I had my antenna out. Then one day I heard something through the grapevine. It seemed like a random occurrence, but we all know that it wasn’t.

I heard through the grapevine that an old friend of mine, who I hadn’t seen in a long time, was making a living teaching some kind of workshops or something in the corporate world. I’d never heard of this before. I’m not exaggerating this. As soon as I heard that, I knew that was the direction I had to go in. I knew that’s where my heart was driving me toward, even though I didn’t know fully what it meant.

I started to explore it, learn about the industry, and learn what this corporate training thing was. I found some people who knew some people who introduced me to somebody else. The long and the short of it is that I got hired by a small consulting company to teach a little workshop on business writing. They gave me a shot. I had a business background, I had a performance background because of my music, and I had a love for people.

This was a way to bring it all together. Actually, now that I think about it, one of your friends-and I’m sure many of your listeners are fans-is of Marci Shimoff. That was the same business writing company. I’d totally forgotten about that until now. That’s where we both got our start in the training world, so to speak.

CHRIS ATTWOOD: I want to ask you about this, Steve, because I think there’s an important principle here for all of us. What I heard you say is that you took some of the skills and experience you had before, and you applied it into an area you thought would move you closer to following your passions.

STEVE FARBER: Yes. That’s a critical point. I also have to say that it wasn’t a strategic or even an intellectual decision. That would have been a good thing to do, by the way, but I didn’t sit down and say, “What are the things I’m good at? What are the things I love? What are the things I’m passionate about?” I didn’t do my own self-designed passion test at the time and then seek out what would fulfill that.

It was more like when I heard of the opportunity, it just resonated. It resonated on a feeling level first, and then as I thought about it, I saw why. It rationally made sense, but the pull was totally from the heart. Then when I started doing that work, I’d built some credibility, so I was able to go around to other consulting and training companies and say, “I do this. Here’s my track record,” as short as it was.

I was taken on by an international company called TMI, which means something totally different now. It was a company based in Denmark, and they had offices all over the world. I was in San Francisco at the time, and TMI North America was stationed there. They hired me to do a program called Putting People First. The whole idea behind the program was that if a company is going to have a very high level of customer service, they have to pay attention to the environment and culture of the company.

You have to have a company of service where people take care of each other. If you create that kind of environment, that feeling, attitude, and approach will translate itself into the way you serve your so-called external customers. That was the body of work that I immersed myself in. For the next five or six years, I got exposure to all different kinds of companies from top to bottom. We’d go in and work with an entire organization, from senior-most executives to people on the front line.

That’s where I began to see that this people stuff in business, the way people care for each other, the attitudes they have toward each other, and the way they treat each other is not just a nice thing. It’s not just something that we intuitively know should be the case. It’s just darn good business. It all started to come together, and then as that evolved I began to see that what really makes the difference in all that is the quality of the leadership.

Those leaders aren’t necessarily the people who sit at the top of the organization. They could be anywhere in the organization. Those are the people who feel strongly about what they’re trying to do, love their customers, take a stand for what’s right, want to create a great environment, and take responsibility to do so. That really drew me into my passion for leadership and what that means, which brought me to the Tom Peters Company, where I really learned some significant lessons.

CHRIS ATTWOOD: I want you to talk to us about that in just a minute, but I want to pull this together because I think it’s very interesting. I saw some statistics recently from the Gallup Organization that the ratio between actively disengaged and engaged employees is something like eight to one. Obviously, that one represents the leaders, those who are passionate, and those who are turned on.

The eight represents most everyone else. I want to take a moment and just address anybody who may be listening who may be part of the eight. What you said, I think, was very powerful. You started off with a passion for music and then realized that you needed to support your family. You went into a business that you thought would make money.

Janet and I like to refer to that as money-based decision-making, which is fundamentally non-sustainable. You went into a job to make money and discovered that you hated it, and yet you gained some experience from that. Then what you did is you took that experience plus your passion, and somehow pulled those things together into a new direction that was closer to the things that seemed to resonate with you.

From there, that led you on to a whole new discovery of possibilities. It took you to the point of having this interest that’s driven much of your professional career; and not only interest, but becoming an expert in the field of leadership. Would it be fair to say that this was kind of the transition you made from being a broke musician to being a highly paid consultant?

STEVE FARBER: Yes, you summarized it beautifully, Chris. That’s exactly it. It’s my heart that’s been pulling me along the whole time.

CHRIS ATTWOOD: Obviously, that’s the key. Tom Peters is huge in the business management world. If you would, for our readers, just share with them a little bit about Tom Peters, his incredible contributions to the world of management and business, and how that led you to create your own company. Then we’d like to get on to your books.

STEVE FARBER: Sure, I’d be happy to. For those who are unfamiliar with him, Tom Peters’ original claim to fame was a book called In Search of Excellence, which came out, I think, in the early to mid-’80s. It was a groundbreaking book. There are many people who consider it to be kind of the catalyst for how the corporate world has evolved into being more people-oriented and customer-focused.

Tom is like the management guru’s management guru. When I had the opportunity to go and work with his company, I jumped on it on the one hand, but I was also very reluctant at first. When I was with TMI, I was an independent contractor, and before that I had my own business. I’ve always been an independent entrepreneurial kind of a guy. It was kind of hard for me to say the word ’employee’ without choking on it, at least in reference to myself. It was really tough. Did I want to be somebody’s employee?

What would I gain from it? What drew me to it was a couple of things. First of all, obviously Tom is world-renowned. There was no doubt I was going to learn a lot from being in this company. Also, the president of his company at the time was a guy named Jim Kouzes. Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner co-wrote The Leadership Challenge, which is arguably the most significant body of leadership research on the planet.

Jim was actually the guy who hired me at the time. He was the guy who interviewed me, made me the offer, and put me through the agony of 48 hours of trying to decide whether or not I was going to accept the offer. Then when I did-and it’s interesting, now that I think about it-the reason I made the choice was I asked myself, “If I roll the clock forward five years, will I be better prepared? Will I have learned more?

“Will I have gotten a better education as an employee of the Tom Peters Company working with Jim Kouzes, or being on my own?” When I put it that way to myself, it was very clear. I’d developed this love for leadership, and here was an opportunity to really learn about it. That’s why I jumped onboard. What ended up happening was I became an officer of the company. Jim was the president. I was one of the vice presidents.

We built this consulting company. I was immersed in the body of work around leadership, particularly Jim’s and Barry’s research, and then helping managers, leaders, and businesspeople of all shapes, sizes, types, and industries to apply this stuff. I really got a very close, firsthand experience of what works, what doesn’t, who the great leaders are, who they aren’t, and what the difference is.

The work that I did there deeply informed my own work, and it led me to another junction point. I hit the point in my own career where I was starting to do some speeches, and I was kind of developing my own point of view on what leadership was. The question then became was this something I could pursue staying at the Tom Peters Company and doing justice to the Tom Peters Company and myself, or was it something I needed to do on my own? Actually, it was a collective decision.

I sat down with all the principals of the company at the time and said, “These are my choices. What’s best?” The decision that we came to together, funnily enough, was that it would be better for me to go off on my own. I gave the company six months’ notice, and they helped me with that transition. They were great supporters of my striking out, starting up Extreme Leadership, Inc., starting to do speeches and write books, and all that. It was really a wonderful experience.

CHRIS ATTWOOD: I have to say, Steve that it sounds a bit like a radical leap.

STEVE FARBER: Yes. What a beautiful transition that is.

CHRIS ATTWOOD: What a wonderful title for a book that’s now considered one of the top business books in the whole field of management. Will you tell us how the book came to be, and what you were trying to convey?

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