Capability Insights Consulting



12 Lessons in Leadership or Hitting Brick Walls While Gaining Gray Hair

Posted on August 24, 2010 at 6:48 PM

Leadership isn’t something that is available only to those of us with gray hair. But, there is something to be said for the lessons that the University of Life teaches us along the way to those gray hairs!


So, below are 12 lessons I’ve learned (or more realistically that I am working on learning) around leadership.


  1. The only way to grow power is to give it away. I have not yet met a leader who isn’t drawn to power. That does not make them megalomaniacs! It is with power that we can accomplish change, grow organizations, or improve situations. But power does not grow when hoarded by the leader. If you steal other’s power you leave them powerless. Powerless people accomplish nothing. And leaders need others to get things done. See lessons 10 and 11! So, to grow your power base and opportunity to accomplish things, you have to give those around you the power to meet their highest potential. Simply put, power shrinks exponentially when hoarded and grows exponentially when shared.
  2. To gain control, you have to first acknowledge that you don’t have it. Should be so obvious shouldn’t it! The problem is that many of us who like to “be in control” also suffer from the assumption that we are in control. This is especially true when things are going well; we must have things “under control” right? My experience says that is wrong. I do a better job as a leader when I recognize that I’m not likely seeing the whole picture. That I need to keep looking, keep questioning and keep digging so I can find the things lurking around waiting to sidetrack me, the team or the work. I can keep moving forward while I’m looking. This is about replacing control with awareness.
  3. Control and leadership don’t have much to do with one another. For a start, review lesson 2. Once you’ve accepted that you are rarely “in control” of things, you need to recognize that you are never in control of people. People will choose to follow you or not. You may have the illusion of control because of the position you hold but it is an illusion. At best when you think you are controlling people you are getting compliance, but never passion or innovation or commitment to the task at hand. Passion, innovation and commitment from everyone can grow your power (see lesson 1) to get things done (see lesson 10).
  4. If you want to speed up, slow down. “I want it done, and I want it done now. Don’t talk to me about issues or risks or anything else that sounds like negativity. Just do it!” The problem with this is that we’ll end up tripping over ourselves. Urgency is good, rushing is bad. As counterintuitive as it may feel, a little upfront planning and analysis will get things done faster. You will discover issues that could have derailed you and be able to deal with them before they take up much time. You’ll know what your major risks are and have a plan to handle them before they become time-sucking, soul-deflating crises. The people around you will take you seriously when they see you doing some planning for this project or change.
  5. Over-planning does not lead to over-execution. Yes, this is a contradiction to rule 4, so see rule 12. You can over do planning. Just enough planning is absolutely necessary. You need to leave some room for opportunities and changes to be brought into the fold. You need a plan with flexibility. Too much planning is all about the need to be in control. You cannot control everything. Review lessons 2 and 3.
  6. Managing up is not leadership. Being a “yes man” and taking orders may make you popular with the boss but won’t help you grow your leadership skills or your leadership power in the long run. Leading up is different. Being a model of good leadership won’t always be comfortable when dealing with those above you, but you’ll keep learning and helping everyone around you (up, down and sideways) to learn as well. Those that manage up well often do climb the organizational ladder very quickly. Then they find that no one wants to follow them once they get to the top – or even the next rung. So they struggle to get things done. See lessons 10 and 11.
  7. Leadership is not a sell job. This is not about having a great idea and selling it to everyone. It is certainly not about continuing to sell even when it’s abundantly clear no one’s buying. Having an idea is great, but it isn’t a great idea until it is punched around, tweaked and morphed into the idea that the whole team rallies around and plans for with passion and commitment. This may be one of the most humbling aspects of true’s not about me or my ideas. It’s about...well, see lessons 10 and 11.
  8. Leadership is not a democracy. Yes, this is another contradiction. This feels like the opposite of lesson 7, so see lesson 12. There are times, hopefully rare, when you cannot share all the information you have, you cannot wait for everyone to have an opinion and you are accountable to make a decision. You have to tell vs. influence, guide and lead. The secret is to let your team know this is one of those situations. If you have built up leadership credibility they will trust you. If this seems to be happening a lot, you are not being honest with yourself. Review lessons 1 and 2. Leadership credibility will soon disappear if it keeps up!
  9. Yes, you can kill with kindness. Not telling someone about a problem because it might hurt their feelings is not helping them improve their performance. Not being direct about a situation because you don’t want to deflate them, is leaving them to guess at what you are saying. Keeping someone who is just not working out is not kind. They feel like a failure on the job and the rest of the team gets resentful. No one wins. Constantly stepping in to make up for someone else’s non-performance means you do not have a team working at optimum power levels. You need power to accomplish things, see lesson 1. Getting things done is the purpose of leadership. See lesson 10. So, as hard and as uncomfortable as it may be, you just have to deal with people performance or behaviour issues. If you have done your best to provide remedial or professional development, coaching etc and it is not working... Stop it.
  10. The purpose of leadership is not to lead, it is to get things done. This one should be obvious as well, but often gets lost in the desire to lead, be seen as a leader, be acknowledged as a leader, feel the power of leadership etc. Having power is pretty lame if it isn’t used to do something. Getting things done is a pre-requisite for maintaining leadership for any period of time. Just try explaining to your boss that you might not have accomplished anything but you lead beautifully. And, getting things done requires more than just you, so see lesson 11.
  11. Getting things done takes more than a leader. Leadership involves getting things done through others. It is not a solitary endeavour. Just like there is no “I” in team, there is no “I” in leader either. That means attending to team dynamics, the individuals on the team, the collective strengths and weaknesses of the team etc. Review lessons 1-10!
  12. Leadership is often contradictory and messy and hard. And you’ll get dizzy following the lessons around. If it were easy there would not an entire industry around it. You can read about it, train on it and get advanced degrees in it. Check, check, check on my part so I’ve clearly been pulled into the messy vortex of this thing called leadership. About the only thing I’m really certain about is that these lessons are not the end for me, just the beginning.

Beware of anyone who tells you that leadership is easy for them, that they are a natural at it or that they don’t really work at it. They just haven’t hit their brick walls yet!




Categories: leadership, project management

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1 Comment

Reply Harish Pathria
9:58 AM on August 25, 2010 
Excellent piece on leadership that is so relevant to the current work environment!