Recipe for Leadership Success: A Large Helping of Passion, Plus a Dash of Paranoia

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Sander Flaum

The most successful, most passionate, and most visionary leaders know that complacency is a leader’s Achilles’ heel. They are never content to rest on their laurels.

They instead remain focused on the health of their business and the need to maintain a competitive edge. They have passion for their company, its products, services, and teams and are continually on the lookout for the next “Big Idea” that will move their organization to the next level. How do they accomplish all of this?  By mixing their passion with a healthy dose of paranoia.

The two best examples of modern healthy paranoia that I can think of are the cofounders of Google and the founder of Starbucks.

I marvel at the intellectual passion and competitiveness of Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. While graduate students at Stanford in 1996 they developed “PageRank,” an algorithm for the Web, followed by “Backrub,” a search engine that analyzed Web page popularity. By the fall of 1998, the two friends incorporated Google and registered the domain

The word “Google” is a play on the word “googol,” the number represented by a one followed by a hundred zeros—a foreshadowing of the engine’s ability to organize infinite bits of information. This fortunate misspelling was added to Webster’s and the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006, defined simply as: “to use the Google search engine to obtain information on the Internet.” 

In less than a decade, Page’s and Brin’s passion transformed intellectual curiosity into a cultural phenomenon, but it did not stop with information. We now use Gmail, Google docs, and hundreds of other free applications that make our lives easier in ways that even Bill Gates, their foremost competitor, did not foresee.     
Brin and Page continue to move their company forward with breakthrough thinking and technological innovations. Google definitely attracts the best technological whiz kids, but the company is careful to nurture, rather than exhaust, them and move on to the next herd of young workers. Instead, Google takes a long-term approach. They have created a culture of fast-paced innovation that develops up-and-comers in concert with a culture of intellectual and emotional balance that in turn nurtures employees’ longtime commitment. The goal is to help employees build a life as well as a career at Google. Google’s leaders are adamant that improvements on both the technological and human front must continue exponentially, insuring that the best workers stay with them for the long haul, keeping their talent fresh and safe from the competition.

Howard Schultz is perhaps the master of benign paranoia. When a love of European culture took him on a journey of self-discovery around the morning (and afternoon) pleasure of coffee, he then took a nation with him to Starbucks! How did he achieve the brand’s incomparable flavor, ensure its quality, create the best corporate responsibility plan of its time, provide part-time workers with health insurance, and stay profitable?  An important part of the answer is his fierce competitive passion, which sets the tone for every Starbuck employee. He empowers his people to go to any lengths to protect the quality of their product and service, from Costa Rica to Seattle, to China and beyond.  

For years the competition couldn’t touch Starbucks, and Schultz retired from the business. However, when the competitors finally “perked up,” he returned to active duty to respond to them with renewed dedication.  Dunkin’ Donuts wanted to out-price and out-speed Starbucks. On quality, Schultz knew Starbucks was the master. He slowed the brewing process down even further, going back to the European roots of brewing one cup at a time. He made sure that the large metal carafes for steamed milk found in Dunkin’ Donuts would not be found in Starbucks. Schultz’s dedication to slow-roasted, slow-made, incomparable quality harkens back to the heart of  his aesthetic passion and reflects a culture that yearns to slow down and appreciate the moment—not simply grab a large coffee to go, without a sense of ambience or community. Schultz is again where he has always been, at the helm of the brand he created, reflecting what it stands for, and communicating his insistence on continual innovation in product, store design, and distribution to stay a step ahead of his competitors.

Great companies like Google and Starbucks are led by champions who are always in forward motion. Are they paranoid about how their company will fare over the long term? Absolutely. Is that a good thing? You bet. These exceptional leaders know that true security is merely a temporary illusion. For them, rest is fleeting, never permanent.

About the Author(s)

Sander Flaum is principal of Flaum Navigators (, chairman and founder of the Fordham Leadership Forum, Fordham Graduate School of Business; and author of Big Shoes…How Successful Leaders Grow Into New Roles.