The 12 Most Important Things I've Learned About Leadership
“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.” –Alexander the Great
The quote provides insight as to why leadership is so crucial to entrepreneurship; the person at the top usually is the difference between success and failure.
Most of us have encountered natural leaders -- people who instinctively do the right thing and effortlessly make average people into exceptional performers. But for the majority of us, leadership is something we have to work on. The million-dollar question is this: can leadership really be learned?
In my experience, the answer is unequivocally YES. With that in mind, here are 12 points I have found to be invaluable in my journey as an entrepreneur and a leader:
1. Be decisive.
A reality for any leader is that many people need decisions from you, and if you can’t make them quickly your organization is going to suffer. Get high-level summaries, weigh the options and then make the call.
Don’t agonize, over analyze or second-guess yourself. Many times, no decision is worse than a wrong decision because inaction paralyzes staff, prevents progress and destroys morale.
2. Embrace change.
As a leader it’s your job to drive change, not avoid it. Why? Because technological innovation can turn multi-billion dollar industries upside down overnight, and if you’re too set in your ways, you won’t see it coming. A big part of “seeing around corners” is being proactive about change when things are working well -- before problems actually arise.
3. Be inspirational.
When the going gets tough, people need to feel that everything is going to be OK. They inevitably look to their leaders for motivation and encouragement. Leaders need to project hope and positivity, while keeping the organization focused by combating weakness, negativity and mediocrity. Trust your talent, be bold and people will line up behind you.
4. Be empathetic.
When I deal with a difficult conversation or negotiation, I try to place myself in the shoes of the other person. Having empathy is crucial to leaders, because we are constantly dealing with people management and communication. When you are able to see things as the other person does, you’re much likelier to come up with a solution that the other person is invested in.
5. Control your emotions.
If I get an email that makes me angry, I will type up a draft response that may be aggressive and sharply worded. But I don’t send it. I sleep on it, and the next day I usually find my response was driven by negative emotion and not appropriate.
Your mood has a huge impact on your judgment, and as a leader it’s your responsibility to manage your emotions mindfully.
6. Be persuasive.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” Effective leaders aggressively sell their vision, and win over naysayers with substance and character. Remember, your job isn’t to please everyone -- it is to get the job done right, even if that ruffles some feathers. Celebrate positive results and have a concise message about why your path is the right one.
7. Seek out advice.
Anyone who says they have all the answers is deluded or dishonest. Leaders know good advice is worth its weight in gold and actively seek it out. Cultivate a group of people who know you well, including perhaps a spouse, mentor or trusted friend. These people can be insightful in pointing out a blind spot in your thinking, especially when they are not part of your everyday decision-making process.
8. Never stop learning.
John F. Kennedy said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” Reading about subjects outside of your day-to-day experience spawns creativity and new ideas that are crucial to leadership. Personally, I try to read 30 to 40 books per year, because it simply makes me smarter. I gravitate towards biographies, novels, and political or science non-fiction, but let your own curiosity guide you.
9. Beware of experts.
When you’re in charge of an organization, it’s highly likely a bevy of consultants are trying to get to you. Always be cautious when someone is looking to convince you that they know how to run your business or enterprise better than you. Most “experts” can only tell you the safe ways things have been done in the past but are not helpful about what is the most important: the future. Trust your instincts, not people who are trying to sell you their services.
10. Be authentic.
As time goes on, some leaders develop an artificial public persona which they believe is more "leader-like." This is a huge mistake. Leaders can be introverts, extroverts, funny or serious, but to truly win respect you have to be authentic. Never waste time trying to be someone that you’re not, because it’s a recipe for failure.
11. Walk the walk.
People may listen to what you say, but you can bet they’re much more focused on what you do. Leaders who talk a great game but don’t follow through are destined to fail. Leadership is about results, and you had better bring them in spades. Always have a plan, and ensure you are constantly moving the ball towards the goal.
12. It’s not about you.
It can be intoxicating to be in charge of a large organization, but don’t drink the Kool-Aid and believe all the nice things people may say about you. Leadership is about bringing the best out in others, not building a narcissistic cult of personality. Stay humble, and never lose touch with the most important individuals: the people who follow you and make you succeed.