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5 Leadership Cliches and How They Should Be Reimagined for the Modern Leader

Many leadership tips have become cliched with time. This article explores how they can be interpreted in the modern workplace, and how leaders can apply them today.

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Leadership training is a $366 billion global industry, with writers and podcasters like Brené Brown, Adam Grant and Simon Sinek bringing fresh energy to the space in recent years. Leadership literature can be a brilliant tool: for inspiring change, motivating success and encouraging leaders to strive for better. But with so much information out there, the leadership advice market can be overwhelming.

As an entrepreneur in the business of optimizing human performance, I’ve learned that sometimes the most oft-cited thinking around leadership is still the best. Many new interviews, books, blogs and research papers are in fact just the time-worn tenets of leadership repackaged. 

Instead of reinventing the wheel, reimagining classic principles of great leadership can be an effective way for time-strapped founders to engage in best practices and motivate teams.

Related: 4 Leadership Lessons You Can Learn From a Roman Emperor

Here are five leadership clichés that are worth re-interpreting for the startup generation. Far from outdated and irrelevant, these old-school principles are universal observations on selling, influencing and inspiring, which continue to underpin global leadership strategies today.

Lead by example 

One of the most well-known leadership books of the decade is Brené Brown’s Dare To Lead. In it, she talks about courage and vulnerability as the cornerstones of great leadership. In other words, stepping up to the plate, being brave and not shying away from the tough stuff. The ‘tough stuff’ might be a difficult work problem, an issue with a colleague or a personal struggle with burnout. Whatever it is, the modern definition of leading by example should center around showing your team your humanity and exemplifying positive ways to problem-solve. Gone are the days when ‘leading by example’ meant bluster, bravado and being the loudest person in the room.

The customer is always right 

I’m not just talking about the customer in the grocery store who says the special offer hasn’t been recognized at checkout. I’m talking about the customers, clients, investors, and stakeholders who business leaders must work with and impress every day. In the modern workplace, when a frustrating situation with a client arises that doesn’t align with your thinking, reminding yourself that 'the customer is always right’ can help you see things from their perspective and deliver a diplomatic response. 

Knowing that ‘the customer is always right’ need not be about rolling over and saying ‘yes’ to every request, but about learning to negotiate and present your view to unhappy customers in a sympathetic yet assertive way.

There are no stupid questions 

It might sound patronizing, but the ‘no stupid questions’ mantra is incredibly valuable when it comes to building a supportive culture that values learning and curiosity. A culture where there are ‘no stupid questions’ creates safe spaces for everyone - no matter how junior or senior - to voice their curiosity without feeling shame or inadequacy. An environment that values this kind of open dialogue breeds creativity by allowing every idea or question to be brought to the table freely and without judgement.

Related: Vulnerability Makes a Leader Strong, Not Weak

Think outside the box 

Thinking ‘outside the box’ can be easier said than done. Often, when we’re called upon to deliver a big, creative idea, our minds draw a blank.  While dismissing an idea that isn’t fresh enough with a command to ‘think outside the box’ isn’t generally useful, the notion that thinking beyond the usual parameters of what’s realistic when ideating definitely is. Whether you’re trying to come up with a creative campaign or brainstorming a new product solution, starting with ideas that are outside the realm of feasibility can breed creativity and spark original thought in others. It’s far easier to scale back wacky ideas than it is to scale up ideas that lack vision.

My door is always open 

Like any tenet of great leadership, this one is empty if it is not genuinely intentioned and acted upon. Saying that your door is open doesn’t actually open it. But creating space for employees to come to you -- and being attentive, approachable, and present when they do -- can make a world of difference to their satisfaction at work. It’s empowering for employees to know that they can come to leaders with their questions, concerns, and ideas. It helps them to feel as though their wellbeing and contribution is not only noticed but valued at the top.

Related: Why Authenticity Matters in New Leadership

Luckily, leaving your door open is easier than ever. Employees no longer need to brave a leader or manager’s office if they want a quick chat or to sound something out. Instead, they can arrange an informal meeting over Zoom or even a phone call. Because the barriers to access are that much lower, leaders are in a strong position to open a dialogue with employees and leave the metaphorical door wide open for when they need it. Blocking out time in your calendar each week when everyone knows you are available for informal one-to-ones can help you manage your time effectively whilst also making time for your team.

Alexander Young

Written By

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Alex is a trauma and orthopaedic surgeon by training and founder/CEO at Virti and NHS Innovation Fellow, on a mission to improve human performance and training through technology. Alex is the host of the Human Performance podcast and also writes for Forbes on entrepreneurship.