A Lesson in Real Business Leadership

I’ve met and interviewed hundreds of CEOs and, while you get a sense with many of them that they have leadership skills — after all, why are they CEO if they don’t — it’s rare that you hear a story that so clearly defines a real business leader.

Yesterday I met such a guy: Chairman of Rackspace, Graham Weston.

Why do I know he’s a business leader? Well, let’s back up and start from the top.

Yesterday he drove me around the neighborhood in Windcrest, Texas.

This is not a place you’d probably like to live. It’s economically depressed. How depressed? Well, even the local Walmart closed down.

We drove around and I saw store after store that was shuttered. Evidence of the economic troubles this neighborhood is going through is all around.

So, when Jack Leonhart, mayor of Windcrest, came to Graham and asked him to move Rackspace’s headquarters there, it’d be understandable if Weston would have answered “thanks, but no thanks.”

He probably should have, because when he brought that idea back to Rackspace’s employees and executives they thought he had been doing some illegal drugs somewhere.

It was an idea that everyone hated so much, several Rackspace executives and employees told me, that when Rackspace hired a firm to do focus groups with employees that firm quit after almost getting assaulted at employee meetings. They thought it was a hopeless idea.

After all, there was even a well-publicized shooting at the bus stop in front of the mall.

But today Rackspace is moving into the mall (video of Graham showing me the mall from the outside), right on schedule, and everyone we talked with yesterday thought it was the most exciting thing that Rackspace had ever done.

Wait a freaking second. How did one guy who had an absolutely crazy idea that 1,400 people hated, including his partners, turn this all around in about a year?

Leadership.

Don’t take my word for it, listen in as I talk to Graham and Rackspace co-founder Dirk Elmendorf about this. Elmendorf, in the video, told how Weston convinced 1,400 people one-by-one and turned a crazy idea into reality.

Business leadership. There it is. Thank you to Rob La Gesse who introduced me to not just Graham and Dirk, but a whole range of interesting geeks in San Antonio, TX. That video shows us at a beer fest last night where I met one of the guys who built the first Wifi modem along with a famous developer who built much of the stuff behind the Amiga.

We shot most of the interview on our HD camcorders, so we’ll have that up on FastCompany.tv in a couple of weeks.

In that interview you’ll hear his latest crazy ideas: he’s opening up Rackspace to the community and won’t build a security fence around the Rackspace plant to keep them out. In fact, he’s putting a park right in front of the building. More of that and more about Rackspace’s business in the interview we did with our professional equipment.

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