Leadership Lessons: 5 Smart Pieces of Advice From a CEO

Leadership is a funny thing. Some people consider it an innate ability while others think it’s a talent you can develop with careful study and hard work.

But the truth is—based on my experience—it’s a mixture of both.

The reality is that not very many people are born leaders. At most, they have a disposition that makes them well-suited to working with and inspiring others.

But leadership goes well beyond those things. A good leader also has to know how to communicate, how to delegate, when to capitulate, and when to stick to their guns – things you can learn. Unfortunately, they’re also things that you can only learn with experience.

Consider getting these leadership lessons by finding a great mentor to guide you on the journey. While I won’t presume to be the be-all and end-all of mentors, I’ve had enough experience as a CEO to have learned some tough lessons along the way.

5 Leadership Lessons From a CEO

It is from those leadership lessons that I draw the following five pieces of advice on how to be an effective leader. You can take them or leave them, but I’m confident that they’ll be invaluable to you if you choose the former.

Here’s what they are:

1. Failure Is Often Productive, So Don’t Fear It

One of the first things that I learned in my leadership journey is that there’s no room for fear of failure. And there are a few reasons for that.

One is that fear, in all its forms, is crippling. It’s the kind of thing that will prevent a leader from taking bold and decisive action when it’s necessary. It’s also communicable.

When a leader lets fear creep into their decision-making process, it shows. Before long, the people you’re leading will allow your fear to infect their work.

Once that happens, your entire organization’s ability to innovate will suffer. After all, there’s always uncertainty in doing something new. And if you telegraph your fear of failure from the outset, nobody’s going to go out on a limb to find success.

Another reason is that fear of failure is simply wrong-headed. Failure is important. It’s how we learn. It’s how we make progress. If you’re not failing every now and then, you’re probably never leaving your comfort zone.

As Theodore Roosevelt so eloquently put it,[1]

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.”

In other words, failure is a sign that you’re striving to make progress—so don’t fear it, embrace it.

2. Give Credit Where It’s Due

In my travels as a CEO and entrepreneur, I’ve met more than my share of well-known business leaders and I’ve learned something very important by observing some of them at close range. It’s that the ones who lead the most effective teams are the ones who are the most selfless. They’re the ones who go out of their way to give credit to every team member when it’s due.

The ones who value the veneer of successful leadership—rather than the genuine article—are the ones who try and build a cult of personality around themselves. They’re the ones who take credit for everything their team does.

They’re the ones that are always looking for the next sound bite or media feature, and they’re also the ones that their teams secretly loathe working for.

When you make it a practice to give credit where it’s due, talented people will flock to you. Why? It’s because they’ll recognize that you’re running a real team, not a front for self-aggrandizement. And there’s no better way to inspire people to do their best work than to value that work.

In a world where competition for top talent is always fierce, a little honest recognition of the people you’re leading offers an immeasurable advantage.

3. Always Share Your Reasoning

Like it or not, being a leader means having the final say on every consequential decision. And no matter how much your team respects you, there’s always going to be one faction or another that disagrees with your choices. That’s just the reality of group dynamics. It’s a consequence of knitting a group of individuals into a team.

What matters most, however, is what happens after a decision is made.

Will the people who disagree with you silently root for you to fail? Or will they do everything in their power to make your decision work out for the best?

It turns out that how you handle the decision-making process in the first place makes all the difference in the world.

When you’re approaching a decision of import, don’t retreat into solitude. Discuss it with all of the relevant stakeholders and solicit their opinions. And when you make up your mind, don’t just share the answer. Let everyone involved know how you reached the decision.

You’ll find that explaining your reasoning goes a long way toward winning people over. At the very least, they’ll understand where you’re coming from and be more willing to see it your way.

In some cases, explaining your reasoning gives others the chance to point out things you might not have considered. And there’s nothing wrong with a leader changing their mind.

As long as everyone knows that you—and they—are pulling in the same direction, they’ll abide by whatever decisions you make.

4. Micromanaging Is Death

In my opinion, there’s nothing more catastrophic that a leader can do than micromanaging. It’s the opposite of leading.

Leading means delegating tasks and responsibilities and then trusting your team to get the job done. If you’re feeling the need to micromanage anything, something’s wrong, and you’d better find out what it is in a hurry.

Most of the time, leaders end up in this position for one of two reasons. The first is insecurity. When you’re responsible for the fate of a company, it’s not easy to take a hands-off approach. And yet, it’s what all good leaders do.

The second is that someone on your team isn’t getting the job done often enough that you’re perpetually concerned that a problem’s always around the corner. In this case, you can’t afford to dawdle.

Instead of micromanaging the situation, reach out to the team member that’s struggling.

But don’t chastise them. Ask them what’s holding them back. Ask them what kind of support they think they need to get back on track. And if nothing else works, replace them.

As a leader, you’re responsible for the whole team—and that includes making sure everyone is pulling their weight.

5. Honesty Is the Only Policy

The last bit of advice I have—and it’s an important one—is to make honesty your goal in everything you do.

I say that not to presume that you’d do otherwise if left to your own devices. I say it because being honest at all times when you’re a leader is far harder than you think.

If you don’t believe me, ask anyone who’s ever been laid off with little to no warning. I’d bet they’ll tell you that someone above them—their leader—either hid the truth of what was coming or deliberately misled them about it.

And the thing is, I understand why that happens.

As a CEO, you’re always balancing the needs of your company against the needs of the individuals that make it function.

Ask yourself this: If financial realities meant you’d have to let key employees go—people whose early departure could cripple your business—would you tell them the truth of the situation if it meant them departing earlier?

Plenty of people wouldn’t. But the best leaders trust their teams enough to tell them the truth.[2]

The bottom line is that if you want to be a successful leader, the trust of the people you’re leading is essential. And once you lose it, good luck getting it back.

That’s why, for better or worse, you must be honest with the people you’re leading in every situation. If there’s bad news, share it. Let everyone know where they stand. If you can do that, you’ll be shocked at how far out of their way people will go for you.

It’s a way of letting your team know that they can count on you to look after their best interests. And they’ll reward you by giving you every shred of effort and hard work they’ve got to help create sustained success.

At the end of the day, that’s the true calling of a real leader. It’s to bring people together to do their utmost to accomplish shared goals—and that can’t happen without honesty.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, learning to be an effective leader requires more than having good people skills and being the boss. You also have to learn how to put yourself and the people you’re leading in a position to succeed at all times.

Sometimes, doing that will force you to leave your comfort zone or cede some of your authority to others. And that’s the true essence of leadership. It lies in having the confidence to take chances, trust your team, and put transparency and integrity above all else in everything you do.

If you can do all of those things, you’ll be the one giving out leadership advice before you know it.

Featured photo credit: Jason Goodman via unsplash.com


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