What a Leader Needs to Know

I still remember being promoted to my first leadership position. I was a fairly new salesperson when I was promoted to the position of General Sales Manager. I skipped several layers of leadership to reach that level. That put me in kind of a strange position. It put the people who were my bosses on Friday in an even weirder spot because the following Monday I was their boss.

Many people were shocked by my sudden rise in the organization but no one was more shocked than me. It all happened so quickly that to this day I don’t know exactly why I was promoted so far up the organizational chart. But I do know I felt like kind of a fraud. 

The people working for me had a lot more experience. They knew stuff I didn’t know. 

In fact I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. But I knew this much, many of the people suddenly working for me were very unhappy about it. They didn’t like working for someone much younger and far less experienced than them. 

So I resolved to fake it until I learned everything I would need to know to be a successful leader. 

I’m pretty sure I didn’t fool anyone…except maybe myself. 

That was many years ago and I’ve yet to learn everything I need to know to be a truly complete leader. But I’m okay with that because I now know I will never know enough to avoid every possible mistake. 

All leaders need to know that they can never know it all. They need to know that saying “I don’t know” doesn’t make them a weak leader, it makes them a human leader. 

Authentic Leaders don’t need to know more than the people they lead. In fact, the best leaders want people on their team who know things they don’t. They want people who know enough to  challenge and enlighten their thinking. 

If you’re a leader who believes they need to fake it until they know more than everyone else then you’re a leader who needs to rethink that. You can never know it all. So stop believing you need to and accept the fact that if you allow it to be, every day is an opportunity to learn something new. 

Authentic Leaders never miss that opportunity and neither should you.

Yearning for Some Learning

Successful people have a yearning for learning. The most successful people never stop learning. They know that curiosity might kill a cat but it helps a human being grow. 

A bunch of great things come from learning everyday. 

Consistent learning makes you consistently more interesting to other people. You always have something interesting to pass along. Be aware however that nobody likes a know it all so use your hunger for knowledge to better yourself, not look better to others. 

The more you learn the easier it is to relate to people different than yourself. You’ll find more in common with others. You will value the opinions of others and have more empathy for them. That empathy will make it much easier to communicate with people who you don’t normally associate with. 

Learning helps build self-confidence and self-esteem, two big factors in your success. When you know you can learn anything it’s easier to believe in yourself. It’s easier to believe you can do anything. It’s easier to believe that because if you’re willing to learn it’s a fact…you can do anything. 

If you’re a leader, or hope to one day lead, then consistently learning sets a great example for the people you lead. It’s also a great example for your kids. The people you influence will do what you do far faster then they will do what you say. You have a much better chance of helping them become consistent learners if you’re a consistent learner too. 

People who know more tend to make more…more money that is. The more we know the more we can do. The more we can do the more we can help other people. The more we help other people the more likely it is that benefits follow. The benefit of knowing you did something good follows. The benefit of making a difference in the lives of other people follows. Leaving behind a legacy of caring when you’re gone follows and yes, the benefit of more money follows as well. 

Never in human history has it been easier to learn. The internet is loaded with good information. Much of it is even true but one of the first things you need to learn is that much of it isn’t true so choose your sources of information carefully. 

There are a ton of excellent podcasts. Even more highly informative blogs. TED Talks are informative AND free. 

Plus there are books! Leaders are readers. 15 minutes a day can make all the difference between learning something new and being stuck with old ideas and old ways of doing things. 15 minutes a day. If you have convinced yourself you don’t have 15 minutes a day to read then let me suggest the very first thing you need to learn about is prioritizing the important things in life. 

You have all the time you need, what you don’t have are the right priorities. Once you figure that out you will be unstoppable. Remember, you read it here first

Learning a Little Leads to Learning a Lot

People are busy. I hear people talking all the time about the things they don’t have time to do. Sacrifices must be made in the name of time, even though we wish we didn’t have to. 

People are really busy…but are they productive? 

I’m sorry to say that in too many cases the answer to that question is a great big NO. People get so busy that they can’t even find the time to question if what they are doing is getting them closer to their goals and objectives. (Assuming of course they invested time in actually setting goals) 

I’d suggest to you that if you didn’t do something yesterday to get closer to one of your goals then no matter how busy you were you were not productive.

One of the most productive things people can do is set aside a few minutes EVERY day to learn something new. With all the blogs and podcasts available these days that’s never been easier. If you’re selective with the blogs and podcasts you read and listen to you could even learn something true. 🙂

But again, people are really busy and don’t have time to feed their brain. That’s what learning is you know, literally feeding your brain. I’m pretty sure if you can find 15 minutes a day to feed your stomach then you can find the time to feed your brain as well. 

That’s all I’m suggesting here and not even 15 minutes a day, how about 15 minutes 3 or 4 days a week. For many of us that’s far more than we’re investing in our futures today. 

Read a book, even if it takes weeks and weeks to finish it. The most successful people are big time readers. They are never far from a book. They have made a habit out of reading which is not surprise. Successful people have developed the habits of doing the things that less successful people don’t like to do…or won’t invest the time to do.

I’ll bet you can’t tell me how you used all 10,080 minutes available to you last week. But I can tell you that it’s highly likely you frittered away a good many of them. Those are minutes you’ll never get back, you’ve lost them forever. If you had invested 45 of them in learning then you have at least 45 minutes that can never be taken away from you. 

A little learning, each and every week leads to a lot of learning before you know it. Make a habit of learning something new on a regular basis; you might be surprised at how much there is to learn. 

Advice to Your Younger Self

I was in a TEAMS meeting recently doing some planning for a much bigger meeting. We were discussing conversation starters when one of the people in the meeting suggested an interesting question to get ideas flowing. 

His question was: What is the one piece advice, if you knew then what you know now, you would have given yourself when you were just starting out? 

I was immediately fascinated with the question. I also knew my answer almost immediately. It is probably easier for me to answer that question, particularly this time of year. That’s because towards the end of each year as I plan for the year ahead I reflect back on prior years to determine what they can teach me. 

Most people want to improve. They know they need to learn in order to do it. What we forget however is that what we learn from others can’t ever teach us as effectively as what we learn from ourselves. 

So how would you answer that question for yourself? Take some time because it’s a serious question. But here’s an additional follow up question to consider…are you now following the advice that you would have given yourself years earlier? 

Depending on where you’re at in your career the advice may or may not be applicable but it is worth considering anyway. 

For those of you wondering about my answer to that question here it is.

I would tell my younger self to listen FAR MORE than I talk. I’d add that I should listen intently to those who are nearest to the end of their career. There are far less likely to be playing politics or trying to lead you astray. They know more because they have lived more. 

A  few words of caution here…wisdom usually shows up with age but not always. Sometimes age just shows up by itself. 

If you can learn from their mistakes instead of making the mistakes yourself you will save yourself a lot of time and expense. 

I’d finish the advice by reminding myself that I’ll never learn one darn thing from talking. I’ll only learn from listening. So listen, listen, and listen some more. 

Most of that advice remains 100% applicable today…too bad I didn’t listen when it was first shared with me by someone else. 🥴

So Much to Learn

I have been fortunate over the years to work along side some smart people. Some of them were so smart that they even knew they had a lot to learn. Unfortunately, while some of them were smart they weren’t exactly smart enough to know that they didn’t actually know it all.

I’ve learned a lot over the years myself, including this little nugget of truth…the day I’ve learned all I need to know will be my final day on earth. I have so much more to learn that I may live forever!

Several years ago I was on the interview team for an open marketing position. One candidate in particular seemed very qualified. He had great experience and at first it seemed like he would fit the culture well. The interview was pretty much done and we were just kinda talking and I mentioned I was in the process of earning a Marketing Executive Certification. We talked about all the classes involved and he stated that he would never do something like that.

When I asked him why he said, “I’ve learned all I need to know about marketing.” “There isn’t anything else left to learn.” I had worked with people who seemed to think they knew it all before but I had never before heard anyone actually say it out loud.

Now the interview was really done and so was this guy’s chances of joining our team. He was maybe in his early forties and he was convinced he knew it all. Not only knew it all, he knew all that would ever be known about marketing.

It was obvious he wouldn’t be a good fit for a company with learning in it’s DNA. I actually felt kind of bad for the guy because I knew his future was going to be full of missed opportunities and limited success.

The amount of learning a person does seems to be directly linked to the amount of success they have. Let that sink in a bit…do you understand what that actually means? It’s fantastic!

It means that since a person’s ability to learn is limitless so is their level of success. It means that so long as we keep learning our opportunities for success keep multiplying. It means that your potential success is completely within your control and totally unlimited.

That is incredible.

If you’re looking for success you now know exactly where you’ll find it. You will find it in a mentor. You will find it in a book or a classroom. You may find it in a TED talk or a blog. If you’re really committed to succeeding you will find it everywhere you look.

Keep in mind that the goal of learning isn’t packing more information into your head, it’s taking action based on that information packed into your head. Successful people never stop learning. They also never stop adapting based on what they have learned.

So…what do you have to learn today?

What History Teaches

Whenever I hear of someone heading off to college who is planning to major in History my thoughts always go to “oh boy, taking on a ton of student loan debt for a low paying teaching job.”

I mean, what else do you do with a History Degree.

But then I start to think more and I am so grateful for anyone willing to teach History. It is history that teaches us everything we need to know to be successful.

In High School my least favorite class was Military History. (I attended a Military High School) I had a hard time figuring out why we were studying old battle plans and tactics from lost battles. I eventually came to understand that if we were ever required to lead a group of brave service members into battle the job wasn’t just to win the war. It was to bring the people we were charged with leading home alive.

As General George Patton frequently said, “it’s not the job of the American Solider to die for their country; the job of the American Solider is to make the other SOB die for theirs.”

Small pieces of historical knowledge can make a huge difference. It can prevent history from repeating itself. If Adolf Hitler had studied Napoleon’s battle plans from years earlier he likely would have not opened up a second front in Russia. If he had waited only a handful of months to attack it is very possible the outcome of World War 2 could have been different.

Companies are like countries when it comes to history. Those that are unwilling to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Emphasis on the doomed.

History can teach us what to do as well as what not to do. The problem is, if we don’t learn from history we tend to take the same shortcuts. Use the same level of thinking, say the same things, and do the identical stuff as the people who failed before us.

It’s fine to study successful companies. Following the practices of those who have succeeded before you makes perfect sense. But I also like to learn from companies that were highly successful right up until the time they weren’t.

I want to know what changed. I want to know what it was that caused them to go from great to good to downright bad.

It most often has to do with people. Mostly the people who run the company. History teaches us that the most common mistake they make is assuming that their future is an automatic extension of their past. Those organizations believe that because they are currently successful they will always be successful. They begin to take their success for granted. They begin to believe that their success is solely due to their efforts. They forget about all the people who have helped them along the way.

Successful companies and organizations do not fail the people leading them. The people leading them fail their companies and organizations.

History is full of examples of how organizations create sustainable success. It is also full of examples of what organizations did to kill their success.

Successful people learn from their mistakes, the most successful people, and organizations, learn from the mistakes of others. Those “lessons” are found in history. Are you willing to learn?

The Danger of a Defensive Mind

But.

That single word has prevented more learning than all other words. Whatever language you speak as your primary language there is a word comparable to “but” and that word is just as destructive.

But is a defensive word. When you’re in a conversation with someone and your response begins with but, or any form of but like “however” then you have likely not actually been listening to the other person. You’re only waiting for your chance to respond.

“But” indicates a defensiveness to your reply. And that’s almost never good.

Because a defensive mind is closed to possibilities.

Many people in leadership positions fail for the simple reason that they have a defensive mind. They somehow came to the conclusion that they can’t be wrong because they are at the top of the org chart or because they head up their department.

As a young engineer in my twenties I was already considered one of the brightest minds in the new field of Electronic Currency Validation. Some even said I was the best.

I made a terrible mistake when I decided to listen to those who said I was the best. Since I knew more than anyone else I had nothing to learn from anyone. That meant that when someone came up with a new idea that I hadn’t already thought of they must be wrong.

The company I worked for created a new position called “Sales Engineer.” They decided that I should do it because I could explain new and challenging technology better than most.

The “sales” part was very humbling at the beginning because people didn’t respond with the clarity of a microchip or voltage regulator. I learned very quickly that no matter how much I knew that I could be wrong about anything at anytime.

I learned I had a defensive mind and I was using it to prove I knew more than other people. Of course, I thought that required me to prove them wrong in which I took great delight.

Unfortunately it prevented me from learning essential sales and leadership skills like empathy. I mean, why try to see anything from the other person’s point of view when they are so completely wrong.

Fortunately for me along came this woman named Vicki who til this very day is willing to point out to me exactly why and where I’m wrong. Which it turns out is pretty often. 🥴

What about you? How many of your responses in a conversation begin with a “yes but?” If even a few of your responses have a “but” near the front of them I can almost guarantee that you’re listening with a defensive mind rather than an open one.

And defensive minds have a much smaller opportunity to learn.

So before you even begin a conversation with someone set a goal to learn something new from it. This is critically important in conversations with customers or the people you lead.

I’ve grown comfortable with being wrong. It’s actually developed into one of my greatest strengths. Even though I’m comfortable being wrong I hate it. The good thing is that it forces me to learn so I’m not wrong about the same thing again and again. Sometimes, I’m even able to compassionately show someone I was right after all.

That’s far easier to do with an open mind than it is with a defensive mind.

I can’t think of a single good thing that comes from being defensive. It lulls you into thinking you know more than you do. It prevents you from learning. It stops empathy in its tracks.

There is nothing wrong with listening to different thoughts and opinions. There is nothing bad about discovering you may be wrong.

I have seen a hundred times over that there are people who don’t know as much as me but are still smarter than me. And thank heavens for them because they are my only hope of learning new things.