What School Failed To Teach Me About Good Leadership

Standout leadership is not discovered in any textbook. It is born in the trenches where results are achieved, conflict occurs, people engage and pain is experienced.

Every day is different. Each day teaches you something new.

My schooling as a leader covered more than 12,000 days; here are the key lessons they taught me.

Fast is better than perfect

Unfortunately, school teaches us that every problem has a right answer. This belief is a non-starter in business, where workable and remarkable solutions are often inelegant and messy. But they are effective because they capture the hearts of the people implementing them.

Business is fluid. It can’t be explained by trend analysis. ‘Plan A’ rarely works. If you are doing lots of imperfect stuff fast, you are on the right track.

Losing is a better teacher than success

Success encourages you to stay with the playbook that has worked so far and doesn’t force you to deviate. Losing, on the other hand, forces you to get out of your comfort zone, to try a different approach and create a new box to play in. When you lose, study your failure from every possible angle. Your post-loss analysis will guide you effectively as you encounter future situations.

The best leaders I knew always looked for opportunity in the face of adversity.

When looking down the barrel of a gun after a loss, many traditional leaders respond in one of the following ways. They:

  • throw up their hands and claim unfair;
  • make excuses due to a lack of resources and budget;
  • shout foul play due to a competitor’s clever move;
  • blame employees for the inability to execute their plan;
  • denigrate the economy for the unplanned turn of events.

Great leaders don’t spend much time whining about the fact the target was missed. They are more concerned about learning from the result and recovering from it.

Standout leaders try to find the ‘pony’ that created the excrement they are buried in — Roy, pony rider

Failure teaches the leader that:

  • virtually nothing happens as planned;
  • a thoughtful response to the unexpected is a real competitive advantage;
  • ‘Plan B’ is more important than ‘Plan A’;
  • the dynamics around execution are critical to success;
  • customers haven’t been satisfied in some way; a deeper understanding of what’s going on with them is vital to finding the pony.

Find the pony buried in your failure and act fast to recover and create more value. The market will remember how you found and leveraged the pony, not that you lost.

What got you here is irrelevant

It won’t get you to where you need to go. The past is merely a record of what worked then; it’s not a prescription of what will work now or tomorrow. It’s all about ‘What have you done for me lately?’ Every new challenge requires something different from you. Have the discipline to ask ‘What do I have to do differently now that I have new responsibilities?’

And keep your feet moving. Every day should be a new day in terms of doing something remarkable.

Outrageous demands sometimes get met

People who are known for unique skills and have strong currency within an organization earn the right to be bold, to stick out their chins and blatantly ask for what they want even though what they want may be considered ‘ridiculous’ in terms of what has traditionally been acceptable.

But individual leverage is vital (the organization needs you to perform a key and necessary role) and timing is critical (they need you to do it now). If both leverage and timing are in your favour, you will be surprised with what you can accomplish. Make yourself invaluable; watch for the opening and don’t be afraid to ask.

Outrageous demands get met because others think more of you than you do — Roy, stick-your-chin-out practitioner

Suck it up when you think you’ve been screwed over

You will always have setbacks;  situations where someone else has got the prize, be it the position in the organization you wanted or a role you wanted to play. That’s just the way it is.

What really matters is how you deal with an outcome that doesn’t go as you would like. The key thing to understand in these circumstances is that it’s done. You have zero ability to change the decision that has been made. The only thing you have any degree of control over is what you do next.

So pause, take a deep breath, absorb the punch; congratulate the winner; muzzle your ego and move on to fight another day.

Nosiness define good leadership

The antithesis of stand-off leadership is the ‘jump-in’ leader where they stick their nose in everything they consider important to the execution of the organization’s strategy.

They know which functions are critical and what projects will determine success or failure, so they make a point of probing the status of crucial activities in detail trying to get a picture of what is needed to ensure the expected goal is achieved. Every day of the week they stick their nose into something different. And they do it personally with no backup entourage.

The ‘Probing Proboscis’ sees their role to determine barriers to strategy execution and to provide the lubricant necessary to keep things moving — Roy, WD 40

Eat your own dog food

It’s not about what you preach, it’s about what you do to demonstrate your words. Far too often leaders preach a set of values and yet don’t consistently practice what they say.

They talk about creating a risk-taking culture but punish those that make mistakes. They talk about being customer focused but they have no calendar time dedicated to meeting with customers.

They talk about people as the most important asset of the organization but they have a closed-door policy and it is impossible for employees to get face time with them.

This type of behavior does not go unnoticed by employees. Employees see the inconsistency between words and action and they are left with the conclusion that it is all a facade and the leader doesn’t really mean what they say.

As a result the organization falters. Little progress is made towards a healthier future. Employee satisfaction plummets. Competitors plunder.

The ‘do as I say and not what I do’ thing doesn’t work. It’s an insult to people’s intelligence. Leaders must step up and eat their own dog food.

You can’t train people to like humans

The more than subtle takeaway here is that training has its definite limitations. Yes, you can train people to follow procedures and you can train them to perform routine tasks. And, yes, there are certain skills that can be taught such as how to build a sales funnel, how to segment a market and how to apply a forecasting model to project future results.

But if the job is to serve other people, training doesn’t cut it because in order to take care of the needs and wants of another person you really have to like engaging with them first. And the prerequisite to effectively deal with others is have to have the caregiver gene in your DNA.

People with this human bias can only be found through the recruitment process.

You can’t train people to like humans; you have to hunt for them and recruit them — Roy, big game hunter

Doing it is 10 times better than talking about it

Theory and academic principles are important determinants of success in business, but cannot be relied on to drive superlative performance and amazing results. It’s one thing to have a brilliant plan on paper but it’s quite another to transform the theoretical solution into expected results.

The only way a plan on paper succeeds (or fails) is to get on with it and do it, learn from it and modify it on the run. Invest 80% of your time on ‘doing it’ rather than on postulating on the efficacy of the plan and how brilliant it is.

In sum…

Each day I spent as a leader taught me something I could only learn in the heat of the action. These lessons were key to my career; let them be your guide as well.

Related: What Leaders Learn From the Frontline