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IAM1851 – Author Derives Lessons on Historical Leadership

Podcast Interview with Jan-Benedict (“JB”) Steenkamp

Why it was selected for “CBNation Architects”:

In this episode of the IAMCEO Podcast, Jan-Benedict (“JB”) Steenkamp, a marketing professor at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School and a renowned author, is featured. Steenkamp, ranked in the global top 0.1% across all sciences by a Stanford University study, has authored several books for business practitioners. His most recent publication is “Time to Lead: Lessons for Today's Leaders from Bold Decisions that Changed History.”

Amid global crisis and leadership challenges, Steenkamp believes that one can learn valuable lessons from great historical figures who often faced massive hurdles themselves. He has conducted executive seminars and guest lectures on all continents, targeting various organizations including the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.

During the interview, Steenkamp shares the following insights:

  • CEO Hack: Taking leadership tests to evaluate and improve one's leadership capabilities
  • CEO Nugget: The importance of motivation and resilience to overcome adversity
  • CEO Defined: A leader who has the ability to guide the organization towards the desired outcomes and achievements
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Jan-Benedict Teaser 00:00

For CEOs and also for the people, what I find is there are two things that are clearly related to impactful leadership. The first is to have grit to have essentially the motivation and also the resilience and the focus to overcome adversity, which we all are going to run into life.

Intro 00:28

Are you ready to hear business stories and learn effective ways to build relationships, generate sales, and level up your business from awesome CEOs, entrepreneurs, and founders without listening to a long, long, long interview?

If so, you've come to the right place. Gresh values your time and is ready to share with you the valuable info you are in search of.

This is the I AM CEO podcast.

Gresham Harkless 00:55

Hello, hello, hello. This is Gresh from the I AM CEO podcast and I appreciate you listening to this episode. If you've been listening this year, you know that we hit 1600 episodes at the beginning of this year. We're doing something a little bit different where we're repurposing our favorite episodes around certain categories, topics, or as I like to call them business pillars that we think are going to be extremely impactful for CEOs, entrepreneurs, and business owners, or what I like to call the CB nation architects who are looking to level up their organizations.

This month we are focused on leadership management and coaching. When we think of leadership management and coaching, we often think of all the other things, but often it's a person that's able to build up their team, that's able to cultivate a creative and innovative culture so that people can excel and actually be their own leaders. So that's why this month we're focusing on those three big topics because they make a huge impact on the organizations that we're a part of.

Now you'll hear some of those topics this month. Of course, some really great perspectives on how people are even defining leadership, which I think is extremely exciting. So sit back and enjoy this special episode of the I AM CEO podcast.

Hello. Hello. Hello. This is Gresh from the I AM CEO podcast and I have a very special guest on the show today. I have Jan Benedict Steenkamp of JB, it's awesome having you on the show.

Jan-Benedict 02:16

I'm glad to be here, Gresh.

Gresham Harkless 02:18

No problem. Super excited to have you on as well too. Before we jump in, I want to read a little bit more about JB so you can hear about all the awesome things that he's doing.

JB is a Knox Massey Distinguished Professor of Marketing at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School. In a recent Stanford University study, he was ranked in the top 0.1% across all sciences.

JB has written several books for business practitioners, his most recent one being Time to Lead: Lessons for Today's Leaders from the Bold Decisions that Changed History. And today's time of global crisis, that obvious lack of faith in leaders at all levels more than ever, we need to, and can learn from the great men and women in the recent and more distant past who have faced much greater challenges.

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He has given executive seminars and guest lectures on all continents into a multitude of organizations, including the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in the U.S. Naval postgraduate school.

JB are you ready to speak to the I AM CEO community?

Jan-Benedict 03:11

I am absolutely ready. Thank you for having me on the show.

[restrict paid=”true”]

Gresham Harkless 03:14

No problem. Super excited to have you on. What I wanted to do is to kick everything off, rewind the clock a little bit, hear a little bit more on how you got started with all the awesome work that you're doing and what led you to come here.

Jan-Benedict 03:25

Since I was very young I've always been very much interested in history and has been, let's say, my hobby and I've learned, from early on from my father, who was a politician, essentially to learn from great historical people. Now, in my academic career, I went into marketing, but the point is you have a lot of leadership positions there as well, professional organizations, journals at the different universities I've worked and so on.

Then a couple of years ago, it hit upon me and essentially how leadership, which I had done a lot in practice, actually, how many parallels there were with marketing because we're both talking about trying to get other people to follow what you would like them to do. They may be purchasing your product to follow your ideas and you lead, et cetera. So combining marketing and leadership and infusing them with historical knowledge, which is, let's say, all the free time that they have since I was perhaps eight or nine or so.

I read history. I tried to integrate them in this new book and to derive lessons for us today here in 2021.

Gresham Harkless 04:34

Nice. I absolutely, love that. So I wanted to hear a little bit more, about your book and how you work with the clients that you have. Could you take us through a little bit more on what we can find in the book and how exactly that works?

Jan-Benedict 04:44

Yeah, so what I do in the book is I identify based on leadership work, seven different leadership styles, meaning essentially certain behavioral patterns that you find in people and then I illustrate and deepen our insight into each of the leadership styles with a couple of historical examples, for example, like involving George Washington or Margaret Thatcher or Franklin Roosevelt and other people that have faced tremendous challenges in their lives and that had to overcome sexism, racism, a classism, all kinds of other things, and that made courageous decisions that really changed history, and we can learn from that.

We can learn from those principles here and now just and that is I think, very important to understand these leaders learn from each other. Let me give you one example, and many people would agree that three of the greatest leaders in the 20th century were Mahatma Gandhi from India, the freedom fighter in India, Martin Luther King, and President Nelson Mandela, the first democratic president of South Africa. Now it's interesting that Dr. King's insights on how to fight racism came by hearing what Gandhi had done in India, and he's very open about it. He said, Now I understood how I could do it, and then he adapted to do the American context, but very important. He always gave Gandhi the honor of giving him essentially the light.

Now what we see is that Mandela, President Mandela, he studied the life of Dr. King. He was very aware of it and what King did. He also had to fight racism. He adapted it to South Africa, but he gave a lot of honor to King. Now what we see is that very recently, just, last week, the new Senator from Georgia, he is a pastor of the church in Atlanta where Dr. King was at one time the pastor and he acknowledges a lot of let's say wisdom how to fight for good things from Dr. King.

So what we see here is, let's face it, the moment that people believe apparently Mandela could learn something from King. I don't know. I'm much better than Mandela. King could learn something from Gandhi. Actually, King is not really an insightful man. I can do it all myself. King perhaps wasn't so smart. I am. I think actually most people would say this is pretty crazy. If people like Mandela, if people like King, if they say I learned a lot from previous examples, why should we not?

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Gresham Harkless 07:26

I wanted to ask you now for what I call your secret sauce. It could be for you personally, or your book or a combination of both. But what do you feel sets it apart? Are you a part of makes it unique?

Jan-Benedict 07:36

I think that I won't say what sets me apart. I will say what sets the book apart is that it's straddles history and leadership. Biographies are very popular, but the point is a biography is often 800, 900 pages long, which is really long, and it is written to draw out the leadership lessons. And it is still only one person, however valuable that may be. Leadership books, many of them are full of hot air. They are the war stories. They are stories about, I did this so great and I did that so great. Unfortunately, a couple of years later, It's not so nice. The boss of Jack Welch he was seen as the greatest manager on earth. He ran essentially General Electric into the ground, essentially, he built a framework, which was built on hot air.

Zuckerberg with Facebook, he has gotten a lot of flack. He was seen as the greatest visionary since Christ, and it didn't work out so well. So many of these leadership books, unfortunately I consider them to be mostly hot air and what they also say is there is only one way to truth. Essentially, they're like a religion. There's only one path to eternal salvation and that is, you have to be a servant leader. You have to follow those 10 laws. And they're also always going to get good or you have to be a Gary Smith tech leader, etc. And that is pure nonsense. Because If you happen to have that personality, those particular skills, that is fine, but many people are not charismatic or they are not by nature a servant leader.

What I show in this book is, that is perfectly fine. That yes, in an ideal world, you have everything. In an ideal world, I look like Brad Pitt. The point is that doesn't help us. That doesn't help the reader because they will never find themselves into the kind of person that there will be such a huge gap between what they are and then what this ideal point is that the guru is selling. That kind of motivated me with this book because I've read a lot of leadership stuff and I've done it but also read it and then in my studies I did a lot of leadership and so on. It never resonated to me because I looked around and I saw, actually life is a lot more complex and I see some guys, being very successful leaders in business or in churches or in countries that absolutely have nothing in common with a servant leader.

Say, you think of a servant leader, President Xi of China, you may or may not like him, but he's pretty successful or Steve Jobs of Apple. He was very dictatorial. Yeah. Apparently, he was very successful too. So the point is, there are many ways to roam and that was what interested me. So in this book, if you read this book, you will find things that will resonate with your qualities, with your personality, with your things. And as General Holt writes in the foreword to the book, and he's a very experienced, very senior general in the United States Air Force, he agreed with me in that he said, You cannot become the person that you are not, but you can improve upon the person that you are. I think that is a very deep insight, and my book is about that.

Gresham Harkless 11:06

Awesome. Awesome. I absolutely love that JB. I wanted to switch gears a little bit and ask you for what I call a CEO hack. This could be like an app, book or a habit that you have, but what's something that makes you more effective and efficient?

Jan-Benedict 11:18

In my own life, which makes me more effective is I have done actually these leadership tests that I've in my book. I have applied those to myself. So I developed those tests based on my work in psychometrics, mathematical psychology. So I developed these self-assessment tests. And then I did the test myself. Actually I found some pretty interesting things, things that I know that, Hey, actually, I'm a little different than what I thought that would be. I did not always like what I found, but when I thought my first point was that this clearly nonsense, then the second point is actually, perhaps there is some truth in it and better work on it.

So what I found was eye opening is I developed those tests based on the kind of knowledge, the test construction, et cetera, that I've done for multiple decades. Then I applied them to myself, and even though I developed the test myself, I learned new things about myself. Not all of it was what I would like to see, but that is also leadership, that you accept sometimes things that are not so nice and then you work on them.

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Gresham Harkless 12:30

What would you consider to be what I call your CEO nugget? This could be a word of wisdom or a piece of advice. It might be something in your book, or it might be something if you were to hop into a time machine, you might tell your younger business self.

Jan-Benedict 12:40

I would say for CEOs and also for the people, what I find is there are two things that are clearly related to impactful leadership. The first is to have grit, to have essentially the motivation and also the resilience and the focus to overcome adversity, which we all are going to run into life.

The second thing that I have found is for people that are truly the most impactful leaders are people that have an overarching goal for what they want to achieve in life.

Gresham Harkless 13:27

I want to ask you now my absolute favorite question, which is the definition what it means to be a CEO. We're hoping to have different quote and quote CEOs on the show. So JB, what does being a CEO mean to you?

Jan-Benedict 13:36

I think that being a CEO is formally speaking, say, the leader of a company in my view, the really meaningful impactful CEO is not a caretaker, but has a true vision for the company where to go and has the ability to get the organization into the direction that they want to achieve.

Gresham Harkless 14:05

JB, truly appreciate that definition. I appreciate your time even more. What I want to do is pass you the mike, so to speak, just to see if there's anything additional you can let our readers and listeners know. And of course, how best they can get a hold of you get a copy of the book and hear about all the awesome things that you're working on.

Jan-Benedict 14:19

So, when I said earlier that these 2 things that my work has shown, both practical, but also in the book is the vision and the grit. If listeners are wondering, how am I doing on those things, there are measurement instruments in the appendix of the book so that you can just in the safety of your own room can answer the questions truthfully and identify whether you are lacking there or not, so you can assess these things and with yourself.

A final thing that I want to say about the vision thing and about the CEOs, if I make the following, if I look at it is very important to attract the young, the best and the brightest. Our MBA students, for example, if they could choose between working for Tesla, a company with a clear vision, clearly, it's clear what they're standing for, what they're hungry for, versus working for General Motors. We do respect General Motors, but I don't think that would be a single person that would prefer GM to Tesla.

So, I think, a vision is good for the company, for the employees, current employees for the shareholders, it's also good to attract the best and the brightest.

Gresham Harkless 15:37

Yeah, absolutely. And I think that when you have that singularity of vision, you're able to express that it comes out so well, not to the people that are within the organization, but also to the people that are outside the organization, maybe even wanted to be a part of that.

And so I absolutely love that you covered that in your book. For people who want to get a copy of that, what's the best way for them to do that?

Jan-Benedict 15:55

The easiest ways to purchase on Amazon, Barnes and Nobles or any other bookstore or online. Probably a lot easier than going to a physical bookstore themselves.

Gresham Harkless 16:06

Yes, absolutely. And to make that even easier, we'll have the links and information in the show notes as well as your information, but I definitely appreciate you JB again, and I hope you have a phenomenal rest of the day.

Outro 16:15

Thank you for listening to the I am CEO podcast powered by CB Nation and Blue 16 Media. Tune in next time and visit us at I AM CEO is not just a phrase, it's a community.

Don't forget to schedule your complimentary digital marketing consultation at This has been the I AM CEO podcast with Gresham Harkless Jr. Thank you for listening.


Dave Bonachita - CBNation Writer

This is a post from a CBNation team member. CBNation is a Business to Business (B2B) Brand. We are focused on increasing the success rate. We create content and information focusing on increasing the visibility of and providing resources for CEOs, entrepreneurs and business owners. CBNation consists of blogs(, podcasts, ( and videos ( CBNation is proudly powered by Blue16 Media.

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