38 Leadership Principles From The Greatest Business, Military, Political and Sports Leaders
It was Eisenhower who said that “leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” What he didn’t but should have added is that like any art, it’s something that has to be studied and practiced. While some of us are born with charisma, few of us come out of the womb a full and cultivated leader. Below are a number of essential lessons on the art of leadership and a framework for the kind of skills required to turn ambition and personality into something more developed, something deeper. Lessons on how to inspire people, lessons on how to survive crises, lessons on how to treat people, lessons on how to learn. This is by no means a complete list (nor in any sense one that I have mastered myself), but it is a start. Good luck. Being a good leader is a skill that takes a lifetime—so the sooner you start the better.
[*] A Leader Reads — In his 2013 letter to shareholders, Warren Buffett explained that a single book, The Intelligent Investor, written by his mentor Benjamin Graham was, “of all the investments I ever made…[it] was the best.” Leaders read. Truman supposedly said, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” Generalizations are usually worthless, but you can pretty much take this one to the bank.
[*] A Leader is Always Composed —“The first qualification of a general is a cool head,” Napoleon once said. Remaining cool-headed in times of crisis and adversity is one of the most critical skills. The worst that can happen is not the event itself but the event and you losing your cool.
[*] A Leader Places the Mission Above Themselves — During World War II, General George Marshall, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for the Marshall Plan, was practically offered the command of the troops on D-Day. Yet he told President Roosevelt: “The decision is yours, Mr. President; my wishes have nothing to do with the matter.” It came to be that Eisenhower was selected because FDR preferred to have Marshall with him in Washington. Marshall’s fame as a general was diminished for this selfless decision but his reputation as a leader was cemented for all time. And proof that he was a class act came after, when asked to write the order announcing Eisenhower to the position to the Allied leadership, Marshall did so in longhand first and mailed a copy of it to Eisenhower along with a note congratulating him and suggesting he keep the document as a momento.
[*] A Leader is Generous — You can always recognize a leader by their generosity towards others, particularly the people who work for and with them. Jason Fried, the founder and CEO of Basecamp has said that he has practically run out of perks to give to his team. From $5,000 annual vacation stipends to 4-day workweeks in the summer, these gestures have kept his team happy and comfortable (and also happy to be why very few people ever leave the company). When Basecamp does well, its employees do well…and the reverse is also true, which is why leaders must be generous.
[*] A Leader is Humble — Right before he destroyed his own billion-dollar company, Ty Warner, creator of Beanie Babies, overrode the objections of one of his employees and bragged, “I could put the Ty heart on manure and they’d buy it!” A leader benches the ego. A leader never believes they have the Midas touch.
[*] A Leader Stays Sober — Success, money and power can intoxicate a leader. What is required is those moments is sobriety and a refusal to indulge. One look at Angela Merkel, one of the most powerful women on the planet is revealing. She is plain and modest—one writer said that unpretentiousness is Merkel’s main weapon—unlike most world leaders intoxicated with position. Charisma is a crutch. Competence and rationality is a requirement.
[*] A Leader Does The Right Thing, Even If It Holds Them Back — John Boyd, a strategist and leader who revolutionized the way war strategy is taught, would ask the promising young acolytes under him: “To be or to do? Which way will you go?” As a warrior against bureaucracy in the Pentagon, Boyd knew that telling the truth often held you back from getting promotions, that declining to rubberstamp bad ideas created enemies. He wanted his young officers to do the right thing, even if it held them back. Because if they didn’t, who would?
[*] A Leader Thinks Long Term — Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and CEO explained the importance of long term thinking two decades ago in his 1997 letter to shareholders. As he said, “We believe that a fundamental measure of our success will be the shareholder value we create over the long term.” For companies—as is the case for individuals—there are always pressures to be myopic and narrow in our focus and vision. Bezos, unlike most business leaders, refused to play that game. As he explained, Amazon will always focus on the long term, “rather than short-term profitability considerations or short-term Wall Street reactions.” He understood that the real value lies in thinking decades ahead. His maxim for business opportunities is also relevant here: “Focus on the things that don’t change.”
[*] A Leader Seizes Opportunities — Leaders don’t wait around for things to happen. Leaders aren’t given their position on a silver platter. No, leaders seize opportunities, no matter how small or disguised those opportunities may be. Think of Amelia Earhart who wanted to be a great aviator. But it was the 1920s, and there were not many opportunities. When a donor was willing to fund the first female transatlantic flight it had a number of insane conditions: She wouldn’t get the fly the plane. There would be a male pilot and co-pilot—they would be paid, she wouldn’t. You know what she said to that offer? She said yes and turned it into something. Less than five years later she was the first woman to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic and became, rightly, one of the most famous and respected people in the world.
[*] A Leader Actively Seeks Criticism — Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of the best commanders of the last century has put his views on the necessity of criticism in this way: “I have no sympathy with anyone, whatever his station, who will not brook criticism. We are here to get the best possible results.” As a leader you understand that in any endeavour there is no room for ego—you answer only to results. And your job is to plan how to achieve those. You actively submit your plans to feedback and criticism—that’s how they get better.
[*] A Leader Sets Rules for Themselves and Their People — Coach Bill Walsh says that “like water, many decent individuals will seek lower ground if left to their own inclinations.” What we need to block these inclinations is rules. Little ones that we can follow to make us better. This is why relying on rules, constraints and systems is important.
[*] A Leader Gets the Big Things Right — There’s the old Benjamin Franklin line about being a penny wise but a pound foolish. It’s the same thing with leadership. Most people get the little things right and the big things wrong—and then wonder why they don’t get much done.
[*] A Leader is Prepared for Setbacks — The great Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius put it this way: “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, because an artful life requires being prepared to meet and withstand sudden and unexpected attacks.”
[*] A Leader Is Objective — The Samurai swordsman Miyamoto Musashi has stressed the difference between perceiving and observing. The perceiving eye is weak, he wrote, the observing eye is strong. Why? Because leadership requires objectivity and seeing things as they are. It requires us to put aside how our emotions cloud our thinking with fear or brimming overconfidence and see how the situation truly is.
[*] A Leader Knows How to Prioritize — Another great lesson from Eisenhower is his decision matrix that helps separate and distinguish immediate tasks from important ones. It asks you to group your tasks into a 2×2 grid deciding whether a task is either important or not and whether it is urgent. Most of us are distracted by what’s happening right now—even though it doesn’t matter—and as a result neglect what is critical but far in the future.
[*] A Leader Makes Things Better— Chris Hadfield, the astronaut, reminds us that there is “no problem so bad that we can’t make it worse” (and panicking often a way to do that). Yet how many of us have had bosses we didn’t want to keep informed about problems because if we did, they’d only make solving them harder? Leaders have to be a source of good energy and solutions. They can’t make hard things harder—they need to make hard things easier for their employees or followers. That’s the job.
[*] A Leader Cultivates Their Will — When Antonio Pigafetta, the assistant to Magellan on his trip around the world, reflected on his boss’s greatest and most admirable skill, what do you think he said? It had nothing to do with sailing. The secret to his success, Pigafetta said, was Magellan’s ability to endure hunger better than the other men. There are far more failures in the world due to a collapse of will than there will ever be from objectively conclusive external events.
[*] A Leader Keeps the Morale High — There is a well-known remark from Napoleon: “The moral is to the physical as three to one.” Or in a more modern take, how Colin Powell put it: “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” Optimism and high morale multiply the effectiveness of everything else—it is why they are key levers that need to be considered in any operation.
[*] A Leader Is Not Passionate — A young basketball player named Lewis Alcindor Jr., who won three national championships with John Wooden at UCLA, used one word to describe the style of his famous coach: “dispassionate.” As in not passionate. Wooden wasn’t about rah-rah speeches or screaming from the sidelines. He saw those extra emotions as a burden. Instead, his philosophy was about being in control and doing your job and never being “passion’s slave.” The player who learned that lesson from Wooden would later change his name to one you remember better: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
[*] A Leader Knows How to Manage and Delegate — When Eisenhower entered the White House for the first time as president and walked into the Executive Mansion, his chief usher handed him two letters marked “Confidential and Secret” that had been sent to him earlier in the day. Eisenhower’s reaction was swift: “Never bring me a sealed envelope,” he said firmly. “That’s what I have a staff for.” As his chief of staff later put it, “The president does the most important things. I do the next most important things.”
[*] A Leader is Rarely Caught Off Guard — General Matthew Ridgway had the following motto behind his desk: “The only inexcusable offense in a commanding officer is to be surprised.” As a leader, your job is to see the bigger picture and the potential perturbations in what you set out to do. Things never go according to plan—be ready and on guard for whatever comes your way.
[*] A Leader Is A Learner— As one biographer would observe of Genghis Khan, “At no single, crucial moment in his life did he suddenly acquire his genius at warfare, his ability to inspire the loyalty of his followers, or his unprecedented skill for organizing on a global scale. These derived not from epiphanic enlightenment or formal schooling but from a persistent cycle of pragmatic learning, experimental adaptation and constant revision driven by his uniquely disciplined mind and focused will.”
[*] A Leader Is Always Ready for Chaos — As the legendary coach Phil Jackson would explain, “Once I had the Bulls practice in silence; on another occasion I made them scrimmage with the lights out. Not because I want to make their lives miserable but because I want to prepare them for the inevitable chaos that occurs the minute they step onto a basketball court.”
[*] A Leader Knows How To Manage (Themselves and Others) — John DeLorean was a brilliant engineer but a poor manager (of people and himself). One executive described his management style as “chasing colored balloons”—he was constantly distracted and abandoning one project for another. It’s just not enough to be smart or right or a genius. It’s gratifying to be the micromanaging egotistical boss at the center of everything—but that’s not how organizations grow and succeed. That’s not how you can grow as a leader either.
[*] A Leader Has a Guiding Philosophy — Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is known for his ‘Win Forever’ philosophy—the winning mindset he aims to instill in his staff and players. Similarly, the great coach Wooden has his own ‘Pyramid of Success.’ (In fact, Pete Carroll was inspired by Wooden to create his own philosophy of winning.) These philosophies and frameworks are critical as they codify the principles and rules by which a team will make decisions and operate on a day-to-day basis. If you don’t have a philosophy, how do you expect to know what to do in tough situations? Or when things are confusing or complicated? Being reactive is never a position of strength. It is not a position a leader should find themselves in.
[*] A Leader Is Driven — Roger Bannister, the first person to run a mile under four minutes knew a thing or two about that philosophy and summed it up as: “The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win.” The leader is the driver of the organization. They have to have the ambition, the motivation—to change the world, to be successful, to win—that the rest of the organization defers to. Without a driven leader, the cause has no engine.
[*] A Leader Sets The Why — What was Hillary Clinton’s big mistake? It wasn’t declining to campaign in this state or that one, it wasn’t her email server. It was that she had no real compelling reason why she was running for president. She just sort of wanted it. No one tries hard or dedicates themselves to a cause without a strong why, without a deep, emotional resonance with the purpose of the organization. A leader has to find their why and they have to build it into their company, business or campaign from day one.
[*] A Leader Looks for Themselves — Samuel Zemurray’s line—per the excellent Rich Cohen—was “Never trust the report.” He went to South America or Boston or wherever the business was being done and saw the situation for himself. He wanted first hand knowledge so as a leader he could make the right decisions. A leader can’t simply accept whatever trickles up from below them—they have to see for themselves. Not all the time—but most of the time.
[*] A Leader Sets High Standards — Football coach Bill Walsh took the 49ers from the worst team in the league to Super Bowl champions in just three years. How? He created a culture of excellence and instilled what he called his “Standard of Performance.” That is: How to practice. How to dress. How to hold the ball. Where to be on a play down to the very inch. Which skills mattered for each position. He knew that by upholding these standards, “the score would take care of itself.”
[*] A Leader Kills Their Pride — “Whom the gods wish to destroy,” Cyril Connolly wrote, “they first call promising.” As a leader, you cannot let pride lead you astray. You must remind yourself everyday how much work is left to be done, not how much you have done. You must remember that humility is the antidote to pride.
[*] A Leader Is Patient — Robert Greene, the bestselling author of 48 Laws of Power, published his first book at age 39. It didn’t hit the New York Times Bestseller list until more than a decade later. When you get impatient, think about Robert’s journey. Think about a head coach who spent 20 years as an assistant for dozens of teams before they got their shot. Remind yourself that the next level might require waiting that long, that you need to be patient. That things take time. Things that rush into this world are often rushed right out. Play the long game.
[*] A Leader Doesn’t Assume They Know Everything— “It is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows,” Epictetus says. When a leader lets their ego tell them that they have arrived and figured it all out, it prevents them from learning and it leads to mistake. A leader must be like Socrates—willing to admit how little they know and dedicate themselves to exposing and addressing this ignorance wherever it is.
[*] A Leader Is Pragmatic — When the mogul Sam Zemurray, at the time still a relatively unknown entrepreneur, was told he couldn’t build a bridge he desperately needed—because government officials had been bribed by competitors to make bridges illegal—Zemurray had his engineers build two long piers instead. And in between which reached out far into the center of the river, they strung a temporary pontoon that could be assembled and deployed to connect them in a matter of hours. Railroads ran down each side of the riverbank, going in opposite direction. When his competitor complained, Zemurray laughed and replied: “Why, that’s no bridge. It’s just a couple of little old wharfs.”A leader knows that there are many ways to get from point A to point B. Don’t worry about the “right” way, worry about the right way. This is how leaders get things done.
[*] A Leader Knows How to Say ‘No’ — A leader pursues what the philosopher Seneca refers to as euthymia—the tranquility of knowing what you are after and not being distracted by others. You accomplish this by having an honest conversation with yourself and understanding your priorities. And rejecting all the rest. Learning how to say no is one of leadership’s most essential tenets.
[*] A Leader Keeps an Inner Scorecard — Just because you won doesn’t mean you deserved to. A leader needs to forget other people’s validation and external markers of success. Warren Buffett has advised keeping an inner scorecard versus the external one. Your potential, the absolute best you’re capable of—that’s the metric to measure yourself against.
[*] A Leader Persists — A leader knows that an obstacle standing in their way isn’t going anywhere on its own. They’re not going to outthink it or outcreate it with some world-changing epiphany. You’ve got to look at it and the people around you, who have begun their inevitable chorus of doubts and excuses, and say, as Margaret Thatcher famously did: “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” A leader knows that genius often really is just persistence in disguise.
[*] A Leader Uses What’s Around Them — Booker T. Washington’s story is inspiring and remarkable—only sixteen years old, hearing about a school in Virginia, Washington traveled 500 miles, often on foot, and sleeping under a raised sidewalk along the way to make it there. He showed up without a recommendation or even an appointment. Without waiting, he picked up a broom and swept the room immaculately clean, impressing a teacher who remarked “I guess you will do to enter this institution.” He would later on become one of America’s most prominent civil rights leaders and someone worth studying and emulating. As one of his favorite lessons go, “Cast down your bucket where you are.”
[*] A Leader Has Courage— Eleanor Roosevelt wrote that “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ …You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” Her husband’s affairs and his capricious ego. The early death of her beloved father. Being sent away to boarding school. The long wars her country fought in. A life of often thankless public service. Eleanor was not fearless—she just persevered through these things despite that fear.
You’ll notice there is very little negative or Machiavellian in this list. That’s on purpose. No one would deny that there is an element of raw power to effective leadership, and it’s not always a pleasant business. But the most effective leadership strategies are far less dramatic or ruthlessness. Simply, leaders lead. By example. By embodying the principles they want others to follow. Mostly, they earn their position by being the kind of person other people admire and respect.
So if you want to be a leader, start with that.