June 18, 2013
5 Leadership Lessons An MBA Can’t Provide

First he talked about the importance of inspiration. Then he described the power of passion. Then he shared the value of vision.

Then I almost fell asleep.

The professor was describing the traits of a great leader. I certainly didn’t disagree with his list: Vision, passion, inspiration, dedication, fairness and accountability. All are important traits of a great leader.

Still, even then I knew I wouldn’t remember almost anything he said. Platitudes are hard to remember, much less put into practice. “Inspire your team,” is great advice, but how exactly do you inspire them?

As I walked away I decided most of what I know about leadership didn’t come from business schools or conferences or seminars. The best leadership lessons are the ones I learned the hard way:

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, etc., are useful—and quickly forgotten.

But make an employee feel stupid or embarrass him in front of other people and he will never forget.

An employee made a comment in a meeting, and I instinctively fired off a sarcastic comeback. Everyone laughed but the employee. (For a long time, I was like a sarcastic-comment sniper who figured that if I had the witty shot I should always take it.)

And my working relationship with that employee was forever changed. I apologized on the spot and also later, but the damage was already done.

Spend twice the time thinking about how employees will feel than you do thinking about data 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.

Presentations are a great way to share detailed, complex information. Presentations are a terrible way to share great ideas.

After I drank too deeply from the Six Sigma Kool-Aid I started interrupting employees who came to me with ideas by telling them to “put something together.” A few would: Then we’d whip out our multicolored belts and talk intelligently about their data, their analysis techniques, their conclusions… ugh.

Most wouldn’t bother, and looking back I don’t blame them.

Great ideas can be captured in one or two sentences. Your employees have those ideas.

All you have to do is listen. And your employees will love you for listening, because I guarantee people they used to work for never did.

3. The “volunteer penalty” kills the flow of great ideas.

Your best employees tend to come up with the best ideas, and it’s natural to assign responsibility for carrying out an idea to the person who came up with the idea. Plus, if that person is a great employee it’s natural to want them to take responsibility because they’re more likely to get things done.

Of course, your best employees are already working extremely hard, so assigning them responsibility every time they have a suggestion naturally stops their flow of ideas.

As one outstanding employee finally explained to me, “I finally realized I needed to stop suggesting things to you. Every time I did you just added another responsibility to my plate.”

Sometimes the employee will welcome the responsibility for carrying out their idea. Other times they won’t. How do you know how a particular employee will respond?


4. Sharing only the positives always results in a negative.

Imagine you’re sharing the reasoning behind a decision you made with your team. Naturally, you want to describe the positive outcomes of the decision. So you whip out your pom-poms and start cheering.

Meanwhile your employees are instinctively looking for negatives, since almost every silver lining for the business has a black cloud for at least a few employees.

I once described how a change to paper dust collection would improve the air quality throughout the plant, but I left out the fact that as a result a few employees would spend at least part of each day looking like they had rolled around in a bathtub filled with flour.

Never leave out the negatives, even if those negatives may be potential rather than actual. Talk openly about any downsides, especially when those downsides directly affect employees. Show you understand the best and the worst that can happen and what that might mean to your team.

When you freely discuss potential negatives, employees not only respect you more, they often work harder to make sure potential negatives don’t turn into realities.

5. Data is accurate, but people are right.

You’re smart. You’re talented. You’re educated. Data analysis is your best friend. Sometimes your data will lead to an inescapable conclusion… and yet you should still make a different decision.

I once moved two crews of about 30 people to a different shift rotation because I knew the resulting process flow would automatically improve overall productivity by about 10 percent. I also knew, because they told me, that most of them would hate the new rotation. But I held firm because I knew great leaders are willing to make tough decisions and do whatever it takes to get results.

It turns out I had that all wrong.

Sure, my new shift rotation worked on paper. It even worked in practice. But it screwed up the family lives of a number of great employees, and I finally pulled my head out of my [butt] and shifted everyone back to the old rotation. We found other ways to improve productivity.

Sometimes a decision should be based on more than analysis, logic, and reasoning. No decision should ever be made in a vacuum, because every decision must eventually be carried out by people.

Leadership should be data driven, but great leadership is often subjective and even messy. If your employees don’t agree with you, ask why, but don’t ask just so you can defend your position. Ask in order to learn.

You know things your employees don’t know, and they know things you don’t know—at least until you listen to what they have to say.

  • Richard Osborne

    Hmmm the fact of life is some leaders manage to get the best out of employees and others dont and there is a knack or god given ability and not all of us have it! Take Army Generals;Historically tactics win but ! alienate your soldiers and or staff and its a whole lot more difficult.

    Montgomery in WW2,was not it is said,as cute as Rommel,and he alienated people around him,however he knew his soldiers were the most important issue and went to great pains to get them good food and as far as he could good equipment,and most importantly was there for his men,being seen with them and keeping their morale high.

    When it came to it Rommels brilliance counted for nothing,in fact it appears he underestimated Montgomery. Reputations count for nothing and no one remembers the loser

    Psychology is a huge issue in every area of life… the chinese proverb really does what it says on the can !!

    “Tell me and i shall forget…show me and i shall remember involve me and i shall understand”

    But the CEO has to adjudicate,thats his job.The employee often only understands part,often, only a very small part of the business equation.

  • Jimmy Collins

    What are leadership “lessons?’ Leadership can not be taught. Leaders are called, not trained.

    • Scott Wuerch

      Leadership is indeed learned, and if it is learned than it must be “taught”. (Get the picture of a leadership classroom out of your head!!). Leadership traits can be learned through observation, mentorship, experience, and study of successful leaders of the past. I’m guessing no one on this forum was taught a formal lesson on accountability. We can all, however, recite multiple lessons we learned by being responsible or learned the hard way by being irresponsible. We have all had mentors and “heros” who taught us the importance of listening to our people, of telling them the truth, of looking out for them and having their backs. Or we’ve had the antithesis of mentors and “anti-heros” who have taught us what happens when we don’t listen to our people. lie to them, or throw them under the bus. We’ve had supervisors who demonstrated to us how to be a good leader and those who have demonstrated how NOT to lead.

      I was never called to be a leader, my first leadership position was bestowed on me because I was the best clerk in the store. My staff did not call me to be their leader. I learned how to be a leader by making mistakes (many of them), experiencing successes (fewer than the former), and reading as much as I could about how to be a good leader (thank you Peter Drucker, Jim Collins, Ken Blanchard,and many others). I tried and failed as often as I tried and succeeded. Each success or failure *taught* me how to be a better leader (the failures, while not pretty, taught me so much more than the successes!!). My staff taught me as much about being a leader as anyone else did. Their response to my attempts to lead taught me more than any school experience could have ever confered on me.

      Now I won’t argue that some people, by nature, do not have it in them to be leaders. But saying that “because there are those people for whom leadership won’t ever be an option, therefore leadership cannot be taught” is like saying that all good basketball players are “naturals” and that the skills needed to become a pro cannot be taught.

      • Jimmy Collins

        What I said was, leadership can not be taught.

        As you explained very well, we all learn. We learn skills. We acquire knowledge and learn to apply it. Through trial, we learn to perfect the practice of repetitive actions. All of this applies to non-leaders as well as leaders.

        What distinguishes leaders is that they have followers. It is that simple. No followers, no leader. Leaders also have a unifying purpose; that is what attracts their followers and is the glue that holds them together.

        Most of the people we call leaders today are not leaders. They may hold positions of authority, responsibility or influence, but that does not make them a leader. They may be called a team leader, shift leader, but that does not make them a leader.

        A person can not be made a leader by appointment, promotion or a title change.

        Only those with followers are leaders.

        • Scott Wuerch

          Help me understand your definition of leader?
          How do you differentiate Leader from Leadership?

          • Jimmy Collins

            Leadership happens when someone choses to follow another person in the pursuit of a purpose, goal or objective that they both share. The leader inspires, motivates and sets direction to accomplish the purpose.

            What most often is called leadership is really management, supervision or coordination. When people accept the direction or supervision of a person within an organization, what takes place is seldom a response to leadership. More often, it is simply a motion that is in the best interest of the responder. The person in charge is not a leader. The responder is not a follower.

            Followers voluntarily, follow the leader they choose. It may be their boss. More often, what we see in the workplace is boss/worker relationships.

            Leadership is too often used to describe influence, management, supervision and coordination of the efforts of people who are not followers.

            Leadership happens when followers chose to join a leader to accomplish a unifying purpose.

  • Oyuka

    Thank you for sharing your experience. It is a better lesson than the theories. I always wonder which one is a true leader, one who does everything to get better results for the company or one who always considers his or her employees first?

  • Lynn / Power Chicks

    Jeff, your first point about feeling versus info alone reminds me of the importance of emotional intelligence, or EQ, in business. Amazing the shifts that happen when we bring our full attention, empathy and awareness to a conversation with colleagues! After a few of my own flippant remarks to folks, I’m way intentional about listening and responding to others from the heart.