JOHN FELONI – LEADERS ON LEADERSHIP
True leadership lies not in the title, but in embracing the burdens of loneliness, weariness, and abandonment while forging a visionary path. In this episode, John Feloni, bestselling author of The Fall of the House of Hutton, The Covenant Secret, and The Tollbooth, explores the four pillars that can make or break leaders: loneliness, weariness, abandonment, and vision. John also unveils the dangers of hubris and misguided leadership, drawing from historical examples like the infamous fall of the House of Hutton. He also lets us enter the world of “The Toll Booth,” his latest business parable that promises to captivate your mind and soul. Tune in now as we unravel the secrets to becoming exemplary leaders!
JOHN FELONI – LEADERS ON LEADERSHIP
Welcome to another show where we pull back the curtain on leadership and talk to leaders of all ages and stages about what it takes to pay the price of leadership. In this episode, I am so excited to introduce you to my new guest, John Feloni. John, welcome.
Thank you for having me.
Let me tell you a little bit about John. John is the bestselling author of several books, The Fall of the House of Hutton, The Covenant Secret, and The Tollbooth. John addresses the hubris of misguided leadership and explores inspired leadership and the seeking and developing of individual and organizational purpose, whether on Wall Street or a college campus. John uses his lifelong entrepreneurial spirit to act resourcefully and effectively and build extraordinary teams.
He considers himself blessed with a spectacular team as the Founder and CEO of Stock Squirrel, where he intends on executing a vision that will make a dent in the universe and expand this social consciousness of society. John, that is a beautiful vision, which we’re going to talk about. Thank you again for being here.
Thank you for having me.
A lot of the audience is like, “Tracy, how do you know all these cool, tremendous people?” I always like to give a shout-out to who made the introduction, and that was Tony Makowski. Those of you who have published with me, Tony and I have been co-publishing for many years. Tony has published some of John’s books and connected me with him. Thank you, Tony, for this tremendous introduction. Without further ado, John, we’re going to get right into the topic of leadership.
My father gave a speech many years ago. It was probably one of the top speeches he gave called The Price of Leadership. In it, he talks about the four things that you as a leader are going to have to be paying to be truly doing leadership and not just a leader in name only. The first of those is loneliness. We’ve heard the term, “Lonely is the head that wears the crown. It’s lonely at the top.” Can you talk to us about a time in your career or life when you experienced the loneliness of leadership and maybe some words of wisdom in case one of our audience is going through it to help them get to the other side of it?
I’ll give you an example. I was at EF Hutton and I was Chairman of Boone Pickens United Shareholders Association. EF Hutton was being taken over. It was a bad deal for shareholders and I brought a class action lawsuit to block the merger. I sued the company, which led to the bestselling book, The Fall of the House of Hutton. What was interesting is everyone agreed with me on the wrong that the hubris agreed on and everything that management and the board of directors were doing. I decided to take action on that. Everybody is all for you on all that, but when push comes to shove, you’re standing out there alone.
That is a leader. What you learn from that is you’re asked the question, “Would you do that again?” There are all kinds of obstacles and attacks on being a leader of something because you’re out front alone. If you’re truthful and you are passionate about the action you took, the answer is yes. I always answer as well I say, “I would be a little bit more elegant.” It’s because you do learn as you go that there are always ways to be more elegant in your leadership, and that comes with experience.
You learn as you go that there are always ways to be more elegant in your leadership, and that comes with experience.
You brought something up there. If you are on the front line in being courageous, there are a lot of people who like to stand behind you, but typically, there’s that tip of the spear. As a leader, you have to prepare for it. I also love that you reflect and look at a way that you could get better. I’m sure that was a scary time. I did crisis leadership in my PhD and I studied a failed merger. It was wild in the heat of the moment. I love that you reflected and said you could be a little bit more elegant. There are times when, “Are we creating our loneliness?” We know there are going to be times of loneliness, but are there ways that I could have done it in a way that narrowed the gap a little bit?
That’s beautiful. Thank you, John. Loneliness. The next is weariness. My father would always joke and say it’s a joke but not joking, “Tracy, it’s going to be tiring as a leader because there’s going to be some people that do way more than what you ask of them, and then there’s going to be a lot that doesn’t.” You’re constantly having to pick up loads, shift, and balance different things. How do you combat weariness? Our team is only as strong as we are.
It always has to do with the team and with people. There are a few things. First of all, as a leader, I come up with a vision, which we’ll talk about. A vision is a destination that I see clearly. My job is to get a bus and point the bus in the direction of the vision. My true job is to get all the right people and sit them in the right seats on the bus. That’s going to change. You’re going to have to adjust. There’s nothing more difficult than letting people go. That’s always hard. One of the things that addresses weariness and loneliness is to be a servant leader, where you lead from the bottom up rather than from the top down.
I’ll give examples of that. When I was a broker at EF Hutton and in management, I hired more million-dollar producers than anyone. When I was given, they would let me go around the region talking to other managers and how you did that. My answer was very simple, not profound at all. I would take one of my brokers to breakfast or lunch. Every morning or every afternoon, I’d take a broker. I’d ask them what they were working on, and then I’d ask them what their goals were, and what they needed to accomplish their goals. I then went back to the office and got them what they needed.
Profoundly simple, but what typical management is, they would say, “You’ll get this and this when you do this and this,” whereas my approach was, “I’ll give you this to get you there.” You’re not always going to be right. You got to trust people like adults and that’s always difficult because the rules of organizations are always based upon the lowest common denominator of human behavior rather than the best. The weariness comes from fighting all of those external things, but it’s your people and the vision that do away with the loneliness and the weariness.
You have to trust people like adults.
You said that rules are always based on the lowest common denominator. That’s profound. We had Ken Blanchard on a leadership call teaching a course. He said the same thing. A lot of prevailing wisdom is you grade people, “You’re a C or a D.” He’s like, “No. Everybody gets an A.” There’s a book where the guy wrote it and Ken was talking about it. Assume everybody has a great pearl in them, and you need to coach them up to an A. I love that you sit there.
You said it. This is making the assumption that they are self-directed, they understand their values, and they can articulate to you what their goals are. I love the one quoted. It’s like, “You always want to delegate to the lieutenants providing you have good lieutenants.” That is the assumption, especially in the financial services sector because you die out pretty quickly if you don’t know or have a hunger for it. I love that you said that because that’s what gets burdensome as a leader. That’s what makes us weary. We’re focusing our efforts on the wrong thing.
I trust my people. Even take as many sick days as you want and as many vacations. When you trust people and treat them like adults, they tend to behave that way as opposed to giving all of these rules and structures. Have faith in that human being and back them. You’re going to be disappointed at times, no doubt, but less so than you think.
You also said the goals. Everybody thinks, “Servant leadership isn’t letting everybody come up every day and decide what they want to do.” You still have those goals out there. We are still part of a collective, so we’re going to be on this sheet of music together, but let me know how you see the goals and the resources to get there. That’s a beautiful definition of leadership, John. Thank you.
The next thing he talked about was abandonment. Typically, abandonment is a jagged word like fear of abandonment or abandoning pets. It has a negative connotation. In my father’s case, he referred to it as a focusing effect. I can remember him saying to me, “Tracy, on any given day, I spend more time on becoming a failure than I do on a success.” What he meant was that we need to stop spending time on what we like and want to do in favor of what we ought and need to do. His sense of abandonment was getting rid of the non-value-added things, thoughts, meetings, and whatever, so we could become very singularly focused. With you, how do you maintain that singularity?
It always has to do with people. You get visions, you have plans and strategies, and so forth, but it’s always carried out through people. One of the ways that I’ll deal with this, whether it’s the loneliness, weariness, abandonment, or even the vision, is I learned something as a manager in a brokerage firm years ago. I was an assistant manager at EF Hutton. I was probably 26 years old. I was walking by this broker’s office. He was a big broker and he called me in. It was a big office, 300 to 400 people. I always knew the politics of everything.
The guy, Chuck, he’s a friend, calls me in and he starts giving me hell about this decision that was made by management, which he knew wasn’t my decision, but he’s given me hell about it. I learned something at 26, which was powerful. He was Italian, and I’m Italian. He’s accusing me of all this management stuff that I had nothing to do with. He’s attacking, which was out of character. I decided to ask a salesmanship 101 question, which is so simply absurd, but I decided to ask it because it was a weird situation.
Before I was going to engage him with my temper because he was running off, I said, “Chuck, is there anything else besides that that’s bothering you?” He sunk back in his chair inside and he said, “My grandfather died last night,” I yelled at him. I said, “You’re going to give all the hell on and all this stuff.” Here’s what I learned, which adds to loneliness, weariness, and abandonment, that 90% of the time as managers and leaders, we’re spending time and effort on issues that aren’t even the issue. It behooves us to deal with that weariness, abandonment, and loneliness in the leadership function to make sure that we are dealing with the issue and to ask the questions and reveal the truth before you spend any time and effort yourself or the organization on solving a problem that is not the problem.
Tollbooth: 90% of the time, managers and leaders are spending time and effort on issues that aren’t even the issue.
It’s the old research thing. Correlation is not causation. That was correlated, but that wasn’t the root cause analysis of what was going on. I love that simply absurd questions reveal the truth.
It was Drucker who said the difference between efficiency and effectiveness is that when you are efficiently putting a ladder up against the wall, it’s solid, it’s stayed, you’re ready to paint, and you go up there, but it’s the wrong wall. Putting it against the right wall is effective. We could be efficient at doing the wrong things too. We got to make sure that we’re effective as well as efficient and we’re dealing with the problems. These are all things that leaders learn over the years by experience. Hopefully, they learn them.
It’s a skillset. I hope our audience is out there. That’s a great question to ask somebody. I love that you said it was out of character for him. Rather than fight or flight, you’re like, “Emotional regulation. I’m bringing this energy in and I’m going to calm it, diffuse it, and say what’s going on.” I love that. Thank you, John. Those are loneliness, weariness, and abandonment. Last is vision. Sometimes we think, “I’m not Nostradamus, Elon Musk, Oprah, or some of these big visionaries.” I love what you said that vision is a destination. It’s where you want to go. My dad would say it’s seeing something and then devising a plan to get there. There was this attraction, but then this action aspect. What is vision to you and how do you keep honing it?
What’s interesting is when you do follow a vision, especially in this world where you get feedback immediately on so many different levels, you have to adjust and pivot. You look at vision as a thermostat. You’re going to get feedback continuously in adjusting, and you may have to change. What’s interesting and a lot of entrepreneurs, especially in the technology space, will tell you that the vision of the company that they initially pointed to is nothing like the way it was ultimately executed.
As a matter of fact, there’s a reason why in Silicon Valley, the venture capital firms back the jockeys more than the horses. They look for a management team and will back a management team more so than the idea of the company. It’s because they know that that initial idea may not be even close to what the final product is once you touch the marketplace and once you touch customers. They know that good management teams know how to pivot when they’re faced with the information of the marketplace and are able to adjust and bring the vision home, which may be entirely different than it initially was.
That is brilliant. I’ve been around a long time. I always tell people, “Even Jesus, the Holy Spirit came down on him and told him, ‘This is my beloved son. He’s the one.'” It is until you have the team.
Think about this. In his team of 12, 20% were no good. You had a doubter and a deceiver. Even Jesus had a management issue.
Yes, he did. That’s fascinating. I love that you talked about vision. You adjust it and fine-tune it. Even me. I’m about to celebrate many years of being back and I’m looking at it. I’m where it was. Dad always says, “You’ll be the same person five years from now, except for two things, the people you meet and the books you read.” Every five years, I’m like, “Where are we now?” You morph into something different. You keep the DNA, but you’re growing into something different. I love that you talked about that because we need to adjust our vision and say, “These aspects of it, we may have outgrown. Now, we’re looking at this. I got the calling that this is done and I’m going on to the next one.”
Who said it best was Napoleon. He was truly the greatest general. He won more battles than the next three combined numbers of battles. He was the greatest military strategist ever. He would plan and plan. As he said, he goes, “Every battle plan isn’t worth a tinker’s dam once you face the enemy.” It prepares you for how to respond, but it changes its dynamic quickly. It’s the same for a vision for a company, etc. Once you face the enemy or the marketplace, you got to continuously adjust. If you’ve done your homework, you know what your arsenal is in the adjustment. If you have the right team, you have the skillset in order to adjust as well.
Every battle plan isn’t worth the tinker’s dam once you face the enemy.
They now talk about it. Remember, it was all IQ in the old school, and then it was the EQ. The last twenty years have been about the softest or the hardest leadership. Now, they’re talking about AQ, your Adaptive Capacity. It doesn’t matter how emotive people-oriented or smart you are, you got to be quick in the lightning seat. You have to be adaptive and regenerative because, on any given day, the best-laid plans are gone.
I’m just thinking of a marketing plan. It used to be years ago when I was young. It would take six months or a year before you knew what you were doing was effective or not. Now, you’ve got immediate feedback. You’ve got to have plans, you got to be ready, you got to adjust, and you got to pivot.
I love that because people out there are like, “I know, but I thought I was going to do this.” I’m like, “That’s okay. You still keep that overarching theme, but your flight plan can vary at any given thing.” That’s great for the audience to know. Hold on loosely. Don’t let go.
It is the beauty of growing up too. Think about it. When I was young, I had fewer choices because the world was different. Now, youth have so many choices. I’m always, even with my children, trying everything. Learning is not just following your passion, but it’s also learning the stuff you don’t like. It’s a process of elimination as well. That will hone you on your path as well. Not just succeeding, but the failures and learning that you are not good at something or dislike it will help direct you as well.
That’s so important because most people are not sure exactly what they want. We talk about vision, and I would say 1 out of 20 people know at a young age, “This is what I’m going to do.” The rest of us ebb and flow through life, but I love that. I’m not sure what I am put on earth to do, but I’m still going to try things, and then I’m going to see.
I would consult with certain people. You’d have a 40-year-old lawyer sitting across from me, and he’s coming and sitting across from me looking for guidance and counseling. He doesn’t want to be a lawyer anymore, but he doesn’t want to make the change because of all of these reasons, societal, family, etc. I asked him a very simple question. I said, “Rather than sitting across from me who is older than you and more experienced, if you were sitting across from an eighteen-year-old, would you take their advice on which direction you should go professionally?” He says, “No, that’s stupid.” I said, “That’s the age that you decided to be a lawyer, so it’s okay to change your mind.”
It is okay to change your mind, but you’re right. Letting go of the comforts is tough. That’s the entrepreneur’s journey. I always worked for big bureaucracies and Fortune 100 companies. Making that transition is a shift, and it’s a whole different kind of problem. I prefer entrepreneurial problems way better than bureaucratic problems. That’s not everybody, but that’s how I am.
Most of our audience is, too, that’s why they’re reading or someday will be. We talked about loneliness, weariness, abandonment, and vision. I want to talk more about leadership. Can we talk about The Fall of the House of Hutton? You talked about the dangers of hubris and misguided leadership. Can you unpack for us, what you found?
I’ll do another book down the road and I call it The Custer Principle, George Armstrong Custer. Here’s what happens. When we have results of something, people try to discipline themselves to make different actions and then decisions. Go back to beliefs because beliefs produce thoughts and thoughts produce decisions and certain actions and results. Most people, if they don’t get the result they want, they go back to disciplining themselves on actions and so forth. You got to go back to beliefs.
Tollbooth: Most people, if they don’t get the result they want, go back to disciplining themselves on actions and so forth. You have to go back to your beliefs.
Here is what the Custer principle is. I experienced this at EF Hutton, and then you experience it with a lot of hubris of powerful people. At the time, Georgia Armstrong Custer, who graduated last in his class at West Point was in the newspaper all the time. He was a great general, and he needed a huge victory because he wanted to run for president. Even though he had some personal flaws, he had the press and everything. He only had 140 men. He was faced with the largest congregation of Indians in the history of the country, 10,000 Indians. He had a colonel who was coming with a lot of troops, but they wouldn’t be there for a couple of days. George Armstrong Custer decided, “I better attack these 10,000 before they find a way to escape.” He attacked them with 140 men.
What I call the Custer Principle is that if you have a fixed viewpoint of something or a certain belief, you will create all kinds of nonsense in order to support that belief. From this book, I created what I call a SAT scan. Know how a CAT scan is Computer Aided Tomography, where you see 360 degrees of something. With us, our decision-making is going to be limited by the things that we believe and our viewpoints. With the SAT scan, I call it a Spiritually Aided Tomography, where you take the viewpoints and the opinions of someone anywhere from Jesus Christ to Hitler.
If you look and explore all of those personalities, then you look at the circumstance in front of you, now your opportunities and choices expand dramatically instead of limiting yourself. When you look at The Fall of the House of Hutton or whoever it may be when you see such massive falls, it’s typically because that hubris was created by having limited viewpoints, limited beliefs, and the actions followed from those beliefs and viewpoints.
How do we as leaders avoid that?
We talk about diversity. The most important thing about diversity is having diversity of thought and viewpoints. When you’re sitting across from someone and you’re addressing a circumstance, to truly explore a diverse group of people who have a different experience, different life, and different education, all of a sudden, you’re getting more information and you’re expanding your choices. Ayn Rand said that there are only two reasons why we do something stupid. 1) Either we don’t have enough information. 2) The information that we have is wrong, and we’re making some decisions on that.
Probably the most important thing about diversity is having diversity of thought.
By having a good group of people around you, a diverse viewpoint, diverse backgrounds, and diverse education, you get to see and explore more things that are truthful. You get people to say, “You are holding that premise, and it’s not true.” All this stuff is important. That’s the best thing a leader could do in order to make good decisions.
They always say if everybody’s thinking alike, somebody’s not thinking, yet I tell people, “You can look radically different, but if you’re all in the echo chamber, you’re not diverse.” Like you said, it’s your thought process. Yes, you want to look for the other, but it has to emanate. You set up here, like you said, beliefs and values, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. That’s where you got to get back to. I love that.
Thoughts, emotions, decisions, and behavior because these decisions are key.
Talk to us about your latest book that just came out, The Tollbooth.
The Tollbooth is interesting. It’s a business parable where this younger guy is at a crossroads in his life. He can expand his company. He sees in the company newsletter with the chairman, who is a great founder of this great multinational conglomerate saying, “We should follow our heart, follow our passion,” and so forth. He decides to see if he can get an audience with the CEO and the founder of this company because he wants to ask him a question. The question that he raises is a good one. He says, “You said in your newsletter that we should follow our heart. I feel that if I follow my heart, I will be leaving this company.”
That’s a profound statement to go to the CEO of a company. The CEO who was a very wise man takes him on a journey of exploring all that. He gives them a notebook where this person is going through his exploration in a tollbooth at night. A tollbooth is a metaphor for us going inside and for us being alone and not looking to the external world for answers, not looking for gurus, not looking for religion or wisdom, but to go inside where all the answers are. It’s this journey that this young man goes through and comes to a conclusion at the end.
The Tollbooth: An Inspirational Story about One Man’s 40-Day Spiritual Journey
I love it. Tony sent me copies. I can’t wait to read it. I love business parables too. John, what’s the best way for people to reach out to you or get your books?
The books are on Amazon, or you can go right to the publisher. I have a website that I’ll be building out more, JohnFeloni.com. You can reach me on LinkedIn. I love hearing about people. You can put a comment on Amazon a review of the book or what have you, and I’ll respond.
John, thank you. Each of those four topics and then even after, you said something that gave me another little paradigm shift. You are everything and more than what Tony told you. I know our audience has enjoyed your thoughts and your wisdom and will connect with you. Thank you so much for being my guest.
Thank you for having me. I enjoyed it.
You’re welcome. To our audience out there, we couldn’t do it without you. Thank you for being a part of our tremendous tribe. If you like what you read, please do us the honor of hitting the subscribe button and sharing it with another leader looking to develop their leadership skills. If you’d give us the honor of a five-star review, we would be tremendously grateful. Be sure you connect with John and get his book. Remember, life is all about the people you meet and the books you read. Have a tremendous rest of your day.
- THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF HUTTON
- The Covenant Secret
- The Tollbooth
- Stock Squirrel
- LinkedIn – John Feloni
- Amazon – John Feloni
ABOUT JOHN FELONI