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Garry Ridge: What it takes to lead

WD-40 CEO Garry Ridge shares what he's learned as a leader during the Great Recession and pandemic, as well as the values that carry him through any situation.

4 min read


Garry Ridge: What it takes to lead

Mike Mozart/Flickr

Leadership is not about the leader. On the other hand, leadership is all about the leader.

Garry Ridge, CEO of the WD-40 Company, knows this lesson firsthand. In 2008, at the start of the Great Recession, when he would travel from office to office and country to country, people would ask him how he was doing. At first, Ridge thought people were asking about his welfare and how he was holding up. Later, it dawned on him that people were really asking, “How are we doing?” They were looking to Ridge for answers, for clarity and for hope amid crisis.

A native of Australia, Ridge has the bearing of a no-nonsense guy who loves nonsense. That is, Ridge is down-to-earth and fun-loving and passionate about helping people do their best to achieve for themselves and for the company. His fundamentals are people, purpose, strategy, execution and freedom. People know their jobs, learn on those jobs, enable others to plan and execute, and have the space to experiment.

In a recent interview for my LinkedIn Live show, “Grace Under Pressure,” Garry shared his philosophy on leadership and what it takes to lead in times of crisis.

On working

“imagine a place where you go to work every day; you make a contribution to something bigger than yourself. You learn something new you’re protected and set free by a compelling set of values. And you go home happy. Our job as leaders is to create that place because happy people create happy families, happy families, create happy communities, and happy communities create a happy world. And my gosh, we need a happy world.”

On the “soul-sucking CEO” (a puppet character Ridge uses to make his points)

“He’s the master of control. He’s the know it all. He’s corporate royalty. He’s, you know, he’s, he’s spent a lot of time fighting his way up. The corporate royalty channel. He thinks learning is learning is for losers because he has all the answers. Most particularly, his ego eats his empathy instead of his empathy, eating his ego. He must always be right. He loves fear-based culture. Micro-management is essential, followed through when, what he does. And he hates feedback.”

On hope

“You must have hope. Being hopeless means you’re not going to deliver on what you would have to do. Hope is about having pragmatic optimism. You’ve got to be pragmatic and optimistic at the same time and both. One of the key attributes of being a servant leader is that he or she is a champion of hope.”

On the gift of belonging

“The gift of belonging is remembering that one of the biggest needs we have is that gift of actually belonging. And, you know, we talk about our tribe in a way that it’s a group of people that come together to both protect and feed each other.”

On teaching leadership

“I think the greatest way to learn is to teach. And I’m so grateful that, you know, for the last 12 or so years, I’ve been able to gather with cohorts of people and examine and talk about some of the principles of leadership we have. And, and, you know, one of the advantages that I have in teaching their program is I’m not an academic, I’m a practitioner. So being able to share my scar tissue has been a benefit.”

Leadership is about the leader, after all. Garry Ridge proves it.

John Baldoni is a globally recognized executive coach and leadership educator. ranked John a Top 50 Leadership Expert and Top 100 leadership speaker. Trust Across America awarded John its Lifetime Achievement award for Trust and Global Gurus ranked him No. 9 on its list of Top 30 leadership experts. John is the author of 14 books, including GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us.

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