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7 leadership lessons from ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

February 12, 2015, 12:00 PM UTC
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

In E.L. James’ bestselling Fifty Shades of Grey, one of Christian Grey’s most endearing qualities is that he is a very successful businessman. So successful he may have purchased 49 of his 50 shades. The 27-year-old dropped out of Harvard to start his own business in Seattle and now, according to James’ blog, Grey holds the illustrious title of Most Successful U.S. Businessman Under the Age of 30 (no, he hasn’t made Fortune‘s 40 Under 40 yet—and never will, since he’s not real) and ranks among the Top Five American CEOs. Grey Enterprises Holdings Inc., (GEH) was launched with $100,000 of borrowed cash and in just a few short years has become a multi-billion dollar business. While the exact nature of GEH’s business is a bit mysterious, the company’s website claims it is “a world leader in communication technologies, sustainable energy and intelligent systems development.” The company also focuses on mergers and acquisitions, buying underperforming companies and, ahem, whipping them into shape. While Christian Grey may be fictional, there are still some valuable lessons to be learned from his success in the boardroom and the bedroom.

Here are seven traits that successful CEOs can learn from 50 Shades of Grey:

Be Resilient

Christian Grey may be private about some aspects of his personal life, but his rags-to-riches story (born to a crack addict mother, adopted by a well-to-do Seattle family, a billionaire by the age of 25) is well known. His journey from poverty to success taught him resilience—a lesson he took into his bedroom, too. Resilience is one of the most important traits of a good corporate leader, because business lore is filled with the stories of slow climbs to success, including the one about how Airbnb’s founders had to resort to selling novelty cereal to keep the lights on as they grew their business. The best CEOs know that the best businesses are worth pursuing and that failure is just another lesson on the road to success. As Steve Jobs said, “If you really look closely, most overnight successes took a long time.”

Be Passionate

Passion is what drives the best companies. As Zappos founder Tony Hsieh said, “Stop chasing the money and start chasing the passion.” A passionate leader can recruit equally passionate team members, raise capital from driven investors, and keep their teams willing and able to put in the long hours necessary to build a successful company. But passions can also cloud a CEO’s judgment, lead to poor choices, and mislead a leader about their business prospects. Christian Grey has very singular passions, but keeps them completely controlled and entirely out of the workplace— sublimating his passions into career drive. Great corporate leaders know how to balance passions, letting them drive a company, but keeping them in check and in perspective.

Find the Right Team Members

When Christian first met Ana, he almost instantly knew that he wanted her to become his, shall we say, team member. He knew that she had certain desirable characteristics that would make her a valuable partner. To recruit her, he set about learning everything he could about her before wooing her on to his, um, team. Careful recruiting is the key to growing a successful business. The best leaders know that they alone don’t have all the required skills to build and run a successful company. They must self-assess their own skill sets and then use that information to hire people with skills that will complement and buttress their own. CEOs also need to know their team members’ strengths and weaknesses and take the time to learn what makes them tick, what makes them miserable, and what makes them excited. This knowledge can help a CEO — or someone like Christian Grey —know which skill to apply in which situation to ensure success.

Commit to Learning

Over the course of Fifty Shades, Christian makes a commitment not just to Ana, but to learning how to be in a committed relationship. Competent CEOs know that they don’t know everything. As companies grow, the most thoughtful and effective leaders make learning an active part of their day, seeking advice, consulting with experts, and encouraging their team to do the same. If learning becomes an active part of corporate culture, companies can stay agile and responsive in a quickly changing environment.

Be A Constructive Critic

One of the most important skills for a CEO to have is the ability to be great at difficult conversations. While in Fifty Shades Christian’s most challenging conversations were usually held in the bedroom and not the boardroom, CEOs do need to be able to have uncomfortable talks with employees, investors and themselves. Because of his capable way with words, Christian was able to tell Anastasia about his singular sexual proclivities, and offer constructive criticism so she could learn and grow as a companion. Good leaders need to be ready and able to deliver critical feedback in a way that that is encouraging and not demoralizing; to give feedback that teaches the recipient how to succeed.

Be Risk Aware (and Tolerant)

Building a business—or a relationship—is all about taking risk. The best CEOs recognize risks and figure out ways to manage it whether bringing in oversight teams or using scenario planning to devise strategies in advance or, even better, devise ways to leverage risk and turn it into opportunity. Still, there is being risk tolerant and there is taking unnecessary risks that can jeopardize a business.

While Christian says, “risky decisions have never bothered me,” he did have Anastasia Steele sign a Non Disclosure Agreement before revealing his big secret.

Be Respectful

A good CEO knows that respect is something you earn: from the customer, employees, investors and, eventually, the industry at large. To earn respect, listen to people, treat your employees like people; not like subordinates, work hard, recognize and reward effort and be genuine. Treating people with respect also breeds happiness and the happier your customers are the more likely they will stay, grow and refer others to your company. Same goes for team members, investors, and, of course, boyfriends or girlfriends. Christian tried to be respectful of Anastasia’s boundaries, but his refusal to compromise about their relationship resulted in [SPOILER ALERT] her leaving him in tears at the end of the book. While Christian had two sequels in which to make it up to Anastasia, businesses may not get a second or third chance to woo a customer back. Treating everyone with respect from the get-go is a far more productive choice.