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5 Great Leadership Lessons You Don't Want to Learn the Hard Way

I was asked to speak to a group of MBA students about leadership. I was surprised since:

  1. I don't have an MBA, and
  2. The university didn't want me years ago when I applied for undergrad admission. (I was not only turned down for early admission, my rejection letter also included the dreaded "...and by the way, we're also not going to accept you during our regular admission phase either but, hey, we certainly wish you all the best in your educational endeavors....")
I couldn't dazzle students set to graduate from a top five b-school with my financial wizardry and esoteric analytical skills. (Well, maybe I could, but how boring is that?)

Then I realized most of them would go straight into leadership positions, and some of the best lessons I learned didn't come from schools or seminars:

  1. Information comes and goes, but feelings are forever. Data is important. Explaining the logic and reasoning behind a decision can help create buy-in and commitment. Charts, graphs, tables, results... all useful. All also quickly forgotten. But make an employee feel stupid or embarrass him in front of his peers and he will never forget. Never. Spend twice as much time thinking about how employees will feel than you do about facts and logic. Correcting a data mistake is easy; overcoming the damage you cause to an employee's self-esteem is impossible.
  2. The best ideas are never found in presentations. Formal education is based on lectures, books, PowerPoint presentations, Blackboard tools... generally speaking some form of presentation. Education conditions us to assume valuable information comes from presentations. In the real world the longer and more detailed the presentation the less valuable the information. Great ideas can be captured in one or two sentences, and often your employees have those ideas, not your peers or boss. All you have to do is listen. And your employees will love you for listening, because I guarantee your peers are not.
  3. The "volunteer penalty" kills the flow of great ideas. Great ideas tend to come from your best employees, and it's natural to assign responsibility for carrying out an idea to the person who came up with the idea. But since your best employees are typically already working at peak capacity, assigning them responsibility for every idea they generate will quickly stop their flow of ideas. ("I better not suggest this... or I'll have to do it.") Sometimes the employee will welcome the responsibility (and may be hurt if you don't give them that responsibility); other times they won't. How do you know? Ask.
  4. Sharing only positives is always a negative. Say you are communicating the reasoning behind a decision. Sharing the positive aspects with your team is easy. Yet employees instinctively look for the negatives, since every silver lining always includes a black cloud that ends up over the rank-and-file. To build trust, share the negatives too. Talk about the downsides. Show you understand the best and the worst that can happen. When you freely discuss potential negatives employees not only respect you more, they often work hard to make sure those potential negatives don't occur.
  5. Data is accurate, but your boss is right. You're smart. You're talented. You're educated. Data analysis is your best friend. Sometimes your data will lead to inescapable conclusions... and your boss will not agree. (Even if you run your own business you still have a boss: Your customers.) Why won't your boss agree? Sometimes decisions are based on more than analysis, logic, and reasoning because decisions must eventually be carried out by people -- people with a wide range of skills and motivations and emotions and agendas. Leadership should be data driven, but great leadership is also messy and sometimes counter-intuitive. If your boss doesn't agree with you then absolutely ask why, but ask in order to learn and not just to defend your own position. You know things your boss doesn't know, and he or she knows things you don't know -- at least not yet. You only learn from another person's experience when you listen.
Related: Photo courtesy flickr user superwebdeveloper, CC 2.0
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