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Great Advice From Smart Leaders

Great Advice From Smart LeadersThat other day I read The 32 Dumbest Things Real-Life Managers Said by fellow blogger Geoffrey James. James says most of these entertaining lines came from his friend. I can't help but feel sorry for the guy - he must be a magnet for dumb managers. Needless to say, it was great fodder for readers.

The next day, in response to comments on one of my posts, a reader wrote this in an email, "We Americans live in an era of magic and abundance (by comparison to our forebears), but we complain and critique seemingly without end. There is something sadly ironic in that." True enough, I thought.

That got me thinking about some of the insightful and thought-provoking things top executives have said to me over the past 30 years. Each one of these "real-life" anecdotes was an impactful lesson that helped shape my career. After all, where do you think our future leaders learn this stuff? In the real world, of course.

Great Advice From Smart Leaders

  • "Do the right thing." - A brilliant CEO, c. '01. To this day, probably the simplest and most impactful thing a leader can say to instill faith and accountability in his management team while promoting solid decision-making and ethical judgment.
  • "Before you blab to the press, consider the downside risk." From a top Microsoft executive after I got myself into hot water with his boss, a Mr. Gates. C. '97.
  • "If nobody knows what you're doing, you'll never get anywhere." Angry over a lousy review, my boss's boss shared what would become a driving force in my career. One word: visibility. It's huge, both inside your company and outside, as well. C. '83.
  • "One of the characteristics I hold in highest regard is 'flexibility'." A frustrated CEO, after months of trying to deal with his unusually aggressive and insistent young executive (me), c. '92. Months later, he fired ... I mean laid me off. Quite a lesson.
  • "Don't make any mistakes you have to live with." My boss, c. '87, was referring to his ex-wife who took him to the cleaners and, since they had kids, was a lifelong nemesis, but it became a cautionary life lesson for him and for me, as well. The message: Take big, potentially far-reaching decisions very seriously.
  • "Always seek to raise your competitor's risk." Refers specifically to competitive positioning, negotiations, and legal battles versus bigger rivals. The strategy has proved remarkably insightful and successful in several high-risk, high-stakes situations. From a General Counsel, c. '99.
  • "Most mistakes are the result of bad assumptions." When you find yourself in deep you-know-what, a little introspection will inevitably uncover that you made some assumptions that weren't correct or set up the problem incorrectly. The message: understand the problem before jumping to the solution. A high-tech CEO, c. '03.
  • "If you stand by the river long enough, you'll see the body of your enemy float by." Some of us instinctively run from problems, but sometimes, you can and should strive to outlast a rival, dysfunctional boss, whatever. Also taught me the value of stickwithitness and perseverance, from a top executive at a Japanese electronics giant, c. '88.
  • "We need people like ____." A relatively off-the-cuff response by a manager to my frustration over someone I though was an annoying and bureaucratic PITA, c. '81. The point is it takes all kinds of people for an organization to function, even if you - a young, up-and-comer - don't see the value at the time. He was right. Some of those people I didn't respect went on to successful careers as senior executives.
  • "The only true success is happiness." Okay, I've said it before, but it's so important it bears repeating. From the president of a UK sales rep company, c. '93. This was a life changer for a young executive pushing himself too hard - me, of course.
Many thanks to reader David F. Smith, Mr. James, and his friend Larry, for the idea.

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