Things I Now Know For Sure About Successful Leadership

I have been truly fortunate over a long management career to have experienced an incredible diversity of leadership and management opportunities in different kinds of organizations, large and small, in multiple countries, across a variety of structures, missions, business objectives, etc. From my first management position 25 years ago, leading a small department in a rural Idaho school district with one employee, to heading a multinational corporation with thousands of employees based outside of the U.S., I’ve been blessed with learning opportunities most leaders will not have in their entire careers.

I have also been challenged with running organizations in different cultural and nationality contexts and had to decide in what ways I would adjust my own leadership strategies and methods vs. how I would ask the organizations to adapt to me!

Now, in my 25th year of management and 30th year in the “professional” work place, through many failures and successes, I have come to understand several truths that transcend culture or organizational structure or financial model, etc. There are no profound secrets here, but I have both scars and victories that serve to identify what has been most important and what I believe is transferable to almost any leadership context from entry level manager to CEO, in virtually any organizational context. Some of these things relate to leaders as individuals and some relate to organizations. You can also see how “less is more” for most leaders here.

Teams do better, more valuable work than even the most talented individuals.

Therefore, building and supporting teams is key to your success as a leader.

At every level of leadership listening is more important than talking.

Yes, you must articulate a compelling vision and communicate in convincing ways, but your efficacy is based more on what you learn from listening than what you gain from talking.

Mistakes are better teachers than successes.

The best leaders have generally made the most mistakes, and importantly, learned the most profound lessons from those mistakes. Moreover, someone who makes good faith mistakes is taking risks—and growing as a person and a leader.

Results matter but that is not the whole story.

Most people at the top of organizations are there because they are “results oriented” and have a sense of personal accountability. They have consistently achieved objectives over time. However, today’s organizational realities typically present leadership challenges that go far beyond just “hitting the numbers.” See an in depth discussion here.

Make sure you know what matters to your leader(s).

Whether you report to a manager above you in the organization or to a Board of Directors, you can save yourself a lot of grief by knowing what the priorities above you are.

Related: Make sure your bosses and your team know what you are doing.

Almost all of us communicate less well than we think we do. Ensuring that your bosses and colleagues are fully informed about what you’re doing and why, all the time, will head off problems before they happen while also increasing the likelihood that everyone is rowing in the same direction.

Organizational culture is more powerful than strategy or planning or just about anything else.

As the management guru Peter Drucker once said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” As a leader your success is inextricably linked to your ability to align culture with strategy. Ignore this at your own peril.

Human capital will get you farther than financial capital, technology or even strategy.

In an ideal world your organization or division or department would be well capitalized and you’d be implementing brilliant strategy supported by world class technology, but even if those things are true—and they often aren’t—your ability to execute on plans and strategies, to make change, to innovate, comes from people.

Related: Leading people well pays greater dividends that managing processes.

See the point above. Your colleagues are “force multipliers” for your vision, strategies, operational plans, etc. Focus on what will make them successful and you will be successful.

Related: What you say and do has a bigger impact on your subordinates than you realize.

Be careful. You can empower and hurt your subordinates more easily than you think you can.

Take care of yourself at least as well as you take care of others.

Leadership is stressful and the stakes are high, but the most important thing you can do for your own success is to care for yourself. Get adequate sleep and create space to relax and think. Meditate. Exercise

Integrity will sustain you over time.

You can certainly achieve short-term wins with “flexible” ethics or by using/abusing people or by saying one thing and doing another. It’s also true that you can operate with unimpeachable integrity and experience failures. But your longevity as a leader, and sustainable success, requires integrity more than just about anything else.

Related: Have a personal vision statement.

This is really important and surprisingly rare. Without a “true north” as a person, it is impossible to have a true north as a leader. Take the time to figure out what matters to you and who you want to be. See more about this here.

A surprising part of successful leadership is simply being stable and predictable.

Most organizations today find themselves operating in turbulent circumstances on a regular basis. It is hard to overestimate the value to the crew of seeing the captain calmly and competently steering the ship, particularly in rough seas.

Over time being a decent human being is a far better legacy than being a rich and powerful jerk.

Some of the most “successful” people in business are also some of the worst people in business. However, at the end of the last day, having hurt or cheated or disrespected people in the pursuit of riches or power is worth zero. Living on in those you have helped is priceless.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of the most important things I’ve learned as a manager/leader so far and I have no doubt that I have more important lessons to learn. However, a common thread among the items shared here is that essentially all of them made the list because I made some sort of mistake related to each one at one time or another. In some cases, I just didn’t know how important they were or I ignored them or I thought I could finesse my way around them, etc. Another common thread is that I think they apply across organizational and cultural contexts. I have learned other things that might apply in a traditional, not-for-profit liberal arts college in the U.S., but not so much in a private equity owned for profit business in Latin America. My sense is that the list above applies at some level just about everywhere. I hope some of the lessons I’ve learned are helpful in your leadership journey as well!

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