Top 10 Leadership Lessons My Greatest Teachers Taught Me
My Top 10 Leadership Lessons from 10 Years of Executive Coaching
In October 2015 I celebrated my 10th year as a professional executive coach. Recognising the importance of celebrating career milestones, it seemed like the perfect time to capture what I'd learnt about leadership and change.
On a bright, warm and sunny spring morning, I took my list of over 250 clients, a notebook, pen and cup of coffee out into my garden.
Recalling the rich and diverse experiences of the last decade, I had one of those dawning realisation, light bulb moments. It isn’t the transformation projects, restructures, implementations, redesigns, start-ups, mergers, takeovers, leadership programs or career changes that have had the biggest impact on me.
As an Executive Coach I've learnt more about leadership from my clients than anyone else!
It’s the inspiring people I’ve had the honour to work with who have taught me the most about what it takes to be a successful leader.
Together we’ve ridden the waves of perpetual change, the highs and lows, disappointments, challenges and achievements. Spanning 22 different industries, sectors and levels of leadership, most of my clients don’t know each other.
Yet, as I thought about each and every one of them, some common themes started to appear.
Through their words, actions and results, here are the best lessons my greatest teachers have taught me
Leadership Lesson #1: Integrity Rules
Be true to yourself
There’s so much written about authentic leadership but when you see it in action, it’s truly inspiring.
Holding true to your values and doing what’s right, even when it’s unpopular or uncomfortable, takes a clear sense of self and being comfortable with who you are.
Nearly all my clients include integrity in their top 5 values list. Feedback and examples from those they work with show how crucial integrity is to success.
Integrity is not something you can touch or measure – you just know it when you see it.
Leadership Lesson #2: Kindness Counts More Than We Realise
Be kind to yourself and others
It’s too easy to sit in judgement of others when they’re not doing what we think they should. Bringing openness, empathy and understanding to every conversation quickly builds trust in our complex, fast-paced world of work.
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did,
but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou
But kindness offered only to others is a trap. Constantly caring for others without heeding our own needs depletes our ability to give. Being kind to yourself means acknowledging your needs and giving yourself a break.
It’s OK to be vulnerable, reach out for, accept and offer help.
Leadership Lesson #3: Small Change Can Bring Big Results
Be willing to take one small step
Constant change is complex and messy. Often the biggest shifts come from the smallest of actions.
Brian* was facing a lot of push-back from his team about an upcoming restructure and was baffled. He’d done countless presentations and sent regular emails and couldn’t understand what it was they didn’t understand.
Making time to eat his lunch in the tea room rather than at his desk every day helped Brian connect informally with his team. By patiently listening to and addressing their concerns, he helped them understand and embrace the change.
By making one simple change to his routine, Brian’s new structure was soon functioning well, 3 months ahead of schedule. All it took was placing a daily team lunch date in his diary and a commitment to honour it.
Leadership Lesson #4: Flexibility Is Key
If something’s not working, shift your thinking and approach
Focusing on the desired outcome means great leaders aren’t locked in to a single way to achieve it. When you’re rigid and uncompromising, change becomes far harder than it needs to be.
Effective influencing means adapting your approach to match the situation and needs of others.
Like a strong sapling bending with the wind, when you’re comfortable with who you are, it’s easier to bend and adapt without breaking.
Often all it takes is recognising that we are the problem. By changing our approach we get out of our own way and the problem is solved.
Leadership Lesson #5: Optimism Opens Doors
Explore what IS possible
It’s easy to pour considerable energy, head space and time into the problem and what won’t work. Believing that every problem has a solution unlocks the way to solve it.
Blended with passion and a ‘can do, will do’ attitude, optimism is catching!
Taking over a negative, defeated team, Andrea* recognised that learned helplessness was limiting their ability to embrace a new system. Providing constant reassurance, she implemented a deliberate confidence building strategy. Within 2 weeks the most active resistors were hooked and actively finding new ways to do things that hadn’t been possible with their old system.
Optimism is not spinning the truth or sugar-coating the facts. It is about being hopeful, positive and constructive.
Leadership Lesson #6: Vision Creates Clarity, Perspective and Calm
Know where you’re heading and why
When a leader is confused and conflicted, followers become distracted, anxious and fearful.
If there’s a lot of white noise around what you’re doing, chances are the vision is misunderstood, lost in politics or buried under ‘busyness’. Rumours, procrastination and excuses are classic symptoms that people just don't 'get it'!
Openly address the rumour mill. Talk often about the desired outcome and explain ‘why we’re doing this’.
The clearer your vision, the easier it is to make it happen.
Leadership Lesson #7: All Change Involves Risk and Courage
Let go of what is to create what could be
Few businesses have the luxury of waiting until all the ducks are lined up before starting a change. Leaders who acknowledge the risks and take action to manage them don’t get sidetracked by analysis paralysis.
Letting go of what’s safe and familiar takes courage and the ability to sit with the discomfort of change.
I’ve seen many courageous leaders successfully push ahead by focusing on what is within their control.
Leadership Lesson #8: Nothing Great Is Ever Achieved Alone
Value and empower your team
‘It’ll be quicker if I do it myself’ is a trap! Before you know it you’re exhausted - working long hours, stressed by the burden of responsibility and resentful that you are doing it all yourself.
Maybe this is driven by our inherent need to be needed or misguided belief that if we do it ourselves we’re taking the pressure off others who are already busy.
The best leaders I’ve worked with readily admit they don’t have all the answers or the capacity to do everything and regularly reach out for help.
They know how to trust, delegate and let go of control and invariably the end result is way better than if they’d boxed on alone.
Leadership Lesson #9: Mistakes Are Gold
Listen, reflect, act and move on.
To err is human and we all stuff up from time to time! Sure we can deny responsibility or beat ourselves up, believing we should be better than that. But making mistakes is how we learn.
We can’t turn back the clock but we can always turn an error into a valuable lesson. Quickly accept responsibility, apologise and identify the cause. Then take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Leaders who take the fall when their team makes a mistake create ‘teachable moments’ and earn respect.
Leadership Lesson #10: Leadership is a Privilege
It’s not a title, role, right or entitlement.
While most of my clients aren’t high profile senior executives with ASX Top 20 companies, they are ambitious, aspirational, committed leaders who constantly strive to bring out the best in themselves and others.
A universal desire to serve, help others and make a positive difference is what unites this eclectic, inspiring group of people. When asked to describe their greatest achievements or what aspect of leadership they find most fulfilling, ‘helping others grow and develop’ is the most common response.
Recalling how they felt when they helped someone achieve something they didn’t think they could do, triggers a smile from even the toughest of leaders.
Leadership is a choice to use our power for good. Sure, it comes with considerable responsibility but it also provides a platform for success, achievement and fulfilment.
* names have been changed
Back when I started coaching in 2005, I could never have imagined the people I would professionally travel alongside for a while. Kudos, bravo and a huge thank you to all my wonderful clients! You’ve each taught me such special lessons.
As the next decade began, it felt like the start of a new school year and moving into the next class. Best yet, my leadership and change journey has taught me that the there is always more to learn.
Bring on the next decade!
So… now I’m wondering, who are your best teachers and what valuable lessons have they taught you?
PS. Curious to know why I became a professional executive coach? Click here to find out!