Be Your Own Boss | The Benevolent Dictator

by Michael Feuer, author of The Benevolent Dictator: Empower Your Employees, Build Your Business, and Outwit the Competition. He cofounded OfficeMax in 1988 starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money, a partner, and a small group of investors. As CEO, he grew it to more than 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales topping $5 billion. He is also CEO of Max-Ventures, a venture capital and retail consulting firm, and founder & CEO of Max-Wellness, a comprehensive health and wellness retail chain that launched in 2010.

Be your own boss. It’s a version of the American Dream that most people have fantasized about. Unfortunately, to many would-be entrepreneurs, getting past the dreaming phase and into the doing phase seems insurmountable—especially in a shaky economy where quitting your day job isn’t an option and funding seems scarcer than, well, pay raises and affordable health insurance. But you believe your idea is not just hot: it is smoking. And if you don’t strike now, someone else just might beat you to it.

The perfect time to make your move is when everyone else is afraid to. It’s a lot like investing in the stock market—once there are more buyers than sellers; you’ve missed that special window of opportunity.

The truth is entrepreneurial success isn’t rocket science. It requires a great idea, the guts to pull the trigger, and the determination and discipline to create and stack the building blocks needed to get from point A to point B—and from point B all the way to Z.

However, if it were so easy, everyone would do it. As business history teaches time and again, success requires a combination of focus, determination, diligence, pure grit, a good dose of luck, and a touch of chutzpah. The successful entrepreneurs I’ve known possessed all of these qualities and one other characteristic that is seldom discussed—that of being a benevolent dictator.

Don’t worry; it’s not as scary as it sounds. The “benevolent” part means always putting the entity, the employees, and, most importantly, the customer, and your backers (if you have them) first. In other words, you’re focused foremost on doing the right thing for the right reasons, for all stakeholders. The “dictator” piece simply means that somebody in a new venture (i.e., you) has to recognize when debate, conversation, and analysis can’t take you any farther. At that time the leader has to step up and say, “We’re taking this fork in the road, for better or worse, and it’s on my head.”

The real benefit of leading in this way is that it allows one to move from mind to market,  faster than the competition and save time, money, and energy to capitalize on the opportunity. When done this way, everyone knows that it’s time to just “do it” and adjust along the way.

In my opinion, one of the best ways to hone these leadership skills is to work in a larger organization that you don’t—and won’t—own. It’s a great way to gain the requisite experience on someone else’s dime. Following this path has served me well while fueling my desire to lead rather than follow.

Before co-founding OfficeMax, which became an international retail chain and household word in just a couple of years, I spent about 15 years developing my leadership style at Fabri-Centers of America—now known as Jo-Ann Stores.

Although I enjoyed my time there, I always felt that I could do it my way—albeit a bit different than most—and create a company that could better serve the customer, provide extraordinary opportunities for my team, and, oh yes, make big money. Jo-Ann Stores, though a public company, was controlled by the founding family and when I realized I’d never be CEO, because “blood is thicker than water,” I started making plans to take the plunge, stop dreaming, and start doing by becoming an entrepreneur. The rest, as they say, is history.

With both OfficeMax and now Max-Wellness, being the benevolent dictator provided the critical leadership necessary to take an idea and transform it into reality when every day counted and money was tight.

Beating the competition is never easy. Someone has to be willing to make the important decisions when it counts. It is all about leading, following or getting out of the way, and I have always preferred the former because if I fail I have no one but myself to blame.

Navigating a start-up venture is about as close as you can get to a 24/7 ride on the world’s scariest roller coaster. If that sounds like an exhilarating life to you—and if you’re prepared to lead and to put the interests of your customers and all stakeholders ahead of your own—I say, go for it!

Take a chance. Pull the trigger. Start your journey towards sucess. Certainly always understand the negatives going in, but fixate on the positives because most negatives are opportunities in disguise. Starting a business is much like falling in love…sometimes you’re not sure why, but you know it when it happens and the timing is right.