“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” – John Quincy Adams



My introduction to leadership can be accurately described as a rude one – at a young age of 25 I got fired like every other staff in a German marketing firm. Few days later, six of us were recalled to resume but the Managing Director decided that I would henceforth be the head of the new team as he was also being recalled back to Germany.  I got this new big office, a secretary, and a mandate to manage five other older employees across the country in a business that had just been downsized and reorganized.  In a culture where age is critical, I learnt early how to humbly lead the team to success without being perceived as directing or supervising them. I was afraid to use the new authority and learned early how to use persuasive method to gain peoples commitment to collective vision.

That was the highlight of my first year as a Manager on the job, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that this “executive thing” was going to be a lot harder to master than I thought. I was essentially thrown in the pool head first, but having survived those first few shaky days, weeks  and months, followed by over 25  years of experience in several very successful businesses,   I’ve learned many valuable lessons that have shaped and moulded me into the “Half-Full” leader I am today.

With hindsight now I wish I had some kind of guidebook that at the very least warned me about the things I just absolutely had to know before I got started.    I had to learn these things on the job, sometimes painfully.    I wish I had someone sit me down as I was in the midst of my decision making and say, quite firmly, “Command and control” is NOT the way to lead, despite what you may think, or what you have seen from the outside.

Now that all these years have passed, and as a more humble, self-aware, and human style of leadership has proven itself to be the more successful template, I…would have thought that businesses would be much more aware of the benefits of actively preparing and training young leaders in this style.   But this costs money and time, so training often goes to the wayside in favor of doing essentially the same thing as what happened to me – throwing new leaders in the pool.

I started writing about leadership few years ago, as a way to share my hard-earned lessons with leaders of all stripes, but particularly new and those who understand that there is always room for improvement – ones looking for the kind of guidance that I looked for. I’ve covered lots of topics throughout those years, but I’ve never assembled a list of those “absolutely need to know things” – until now.

It’s really the foundation on which these lessons can be most effectively practiced, because successful leaders also have to set the right tone of humility and self-confidence.  So take a look at these lessons – read them, absorb them. Talk about them with your mentors and peers.  And THEN jump into a great leadership career.

Every successful leader gets this question posed to them at one time or another: “How did you do it?” It’s always enlightening to read and hear the answers, because, after all, these people have the benefit of hindsight to piece together all the relevant and important steps that led them to the top of the heap. This column will soon start the publication of specific “Leadership Conversations” i have had with notable leaders across private and public sectors all over the world who have distinguished themselves in their various callings.  I have been fortunate enough in my 31 year career to have observed and asked several of my tough Mentors, Coaches and Leaders and to have been asked that same question too, and after a good bit of reflection, I can break it down to several essentials not necessarily in any particular order.


1. Declare Your Intention to Lead and why

A number of leaders are not successful because they are not prepared for leadership. Before you can even start the journey, you have to WANT to do it.   I also drifted around for some years dissatisfied and complaining about leaders as an executive before I finally sat down and wrote “I want to be a leader in this area”, and more importantly, also wrote down the “why“.  That was the real beginning of the journey, declaring that intention. It’s a very powerful exercise well worth doing. You may need to do same today as you read through this column.  It is never too late. Mr Kentucky at age 70 decided it was time to lead in the fried chicken business. The reality of his success as KFC today is that it is never too late.


2. Write Down Your “Rules of The Road”

This is another “put it on paper” . Personal rules to guide your leadership and your life going forward.  I wrote my list back in 1984, and my favourite rule remains the first one – “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, in all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths”.


3. Pursue the Full Spectrum Management

In my career I have observed that a lot of managers like to stay in the middle of a management “spectrum”.  On one side of the spectrum is what I call “Motivators”.  It is effectively doling out praise, encouragement, and ultimately compensation to those people who are outperforming their peers and over delivering on all their promises.  On the other side is “Full Accountability“. That is the ability of a manager to see and acknowledge that someone is underperforming their responsibilities, and taking appropriate and decisive action to either change that behavior or let that person go altogether. We like to stay in the “comfortable middle” of this spectrum because it doesn’t generate any waves, or create many disruptions – nobody gets jealous or envious because some individuals are singled out with extravagant praise or a fantastic raise or bonus, and nobody works with much anxiety because it is rare when somebody gets coached or let go, or does not get a raise. But this sense of calm is only an illusion, because it creates a bunch of resentment, which invariably leads to drops in productivity. In the end, using the full spectrum is about being fair – and being brave enough to get out of that comfortable middle


4. Teach and Model instead of Telling

It is all too easy sometimes as a leader to just be telling – that is, rattling off directives, opinions and statements without much consideration of actually teaching and modelling what you are teaching.   To combat this tendency I have come up with 5 ways to make sure my messages not only stick, but impart valuable and lasting lessons:

  •  Repetition – This is the secret to learning. If you want someone to remember something, you need to say it to them at least 15 times.  While I cannot present to you a raft of scientific evidence to support that number, it has worked very well for me.
  •  Consistency – Hypocrisy and mixed messaging are surefire learning killers – you need to have one story and stick to it.
  •  Plain English –  I always encourage my staff to say more with less, and remind them we are not paid by the word.
  •  Common Sense – There are many benefits to being our own speech editors and simply thinking before we talk; I call it “stepping back before moving forward”.
  •  “Hands On” is Better –  The best quote I have ever seen to really make this message stick came from fabled piano teacher Emil Liebling – “An ounce of demonstration is worth a pound of explanation”

A Mentor Mr Ola Tubi gave me a great book in 1996 to celebrate my appointment to the board of Pfizer called “Walk The Talk”….which emphasized the need to model what you are teaching. It is a tough thing to do initially, but with time you will get used to it and you would have less tension on your leadership role. Your credibility will also soar.


5. Trust the facts

There is so much to admire of one of the founding fathers of USA, during the drive for independence, John Adams (2nd President) always stood out to me, because of the tenacity of his leadership and his steadfast reliance on facts.   When arguing for independence of USA, Adams would again and again remind his fellow congress attendees that the facts could not be ignored – the British had already essentially declared war on the colonies by their words and actions against them. There was no choice but to stand up to the tyranny and declare independence. Earlier on in his career, Adams uttered this famous quote:   “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” It is a valuable lesson to take from him, applied to our world of business by the well-known maxim – “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it“.  No matter how well we THINK things are going, or we HEAR things are going, if the facts say otherwise – they MUST rule. Therefore it is vitally important that we generate the appropriate and relevant facts in our businesses that guide our decision making, and temper any feelings or emotions that may obfuscate those facts and put us down the wrong path.


6. Know “The Secrets of Work”

I have discovered the secrets of how work can ultimately be fulfilling and life enhancing for any individual – all leaders should know them if they are to build a great team.

• Work must be done with passion

• The work must be for a cause greater than ourselves

• It ultimately must be fun, or it is not worth doing

These 3 are a set – that is, you cannot just get to 2 out of the 3 with your teammates and call it good.  We need to get to the fun part, and that is all too often neglected. I see “fun” when the passion and the cause are making a difference – when a group of people are continually hitting targets and raising bars – in other words, to use a sports analogy, they are “winning”. And who does not enjoy being a winner? Think of the camaraderie, the smiles, the feelings of satisfaction, the pats on the back, and yes, the celebrations.   In fact, I regularly ask my team if they are having fun, because I am confident that the foundations of the “secrets of work”, the passion and the cause, are already in place. Apply these secrets yourself, and get your team across the  goal line to the fun zone


7. Use the Seven Most Important Words

A great Mentor Mr J. K. Adesina back in the mid 80’s came up with a great addition to the well-worn leadership lesson called “A Short Course in Human Relations”, which started with the Six Most Important Words (“I admit I made a mistake”), and ended with the One Most Important Word (“we”) and the One Least Important Word (“I”). He did not think six were enough, and added seven more important words: “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” I would hear about this one all the time – he was a very black and white person, and you either had a correct answer or you did not; there was no guessing around him.   He just had this uncanny way of knowing if you were unsure. It is not a crime to not know something, but it sure is if you are  guessing and you turn out wrong.  He developed a robust marketing research department to find out facts and ensure well informed leadership decisions. Those words stuck with me ever since. Now as a leader I am on the other side of that conversation all the time. It really boils down to two core leadership areas  – setting proper expectations (you do not have to possess the answer for everything, but you should have the ability to find the answer), and trust (you do not have to fear retribution if you do not have an answer, but I trust that you can find it). Remember – whenever you are stumped for an answer and are tempted to guess, just say The Seven Most Important Words instead


8. Survey The Landscape (and open your ears)

Your first 3-6 months on the job should be more listening than talking.  Period.  There is no other way to really get a feel for your challenge and how to take it on than to talk to as many people as you can within the organization you lead.   It’s also a show of respect that pays enormous dividends later in the process.


9. Define Your Battles

This isn’t what you think; these aren’t battles with people.   These are the feelings, attitudes, and concepts that you are going to have to fight successfully to be a winning leader.  Things like “we vs. they”, “trust vs. fear”, or “will to succeed vs. hope to survive”.   Once you’ve done your survey, write these down too, and discuss them with your team – when I did this it made a really big difference.

10. Align All The Values

There needs to be a cause that everyone needs to rally around, but it must be based on common values.  Take the time to do this alignment.  In my case, at our Consulting firm we established 3 common values that served us well:  Character, Commitment and Competence.


11. Establish the “Immutables”

You’re now ready to lay down a few operational “immutables” – your leadership lines in the sand.  In my case, there were 4:  Quality, Service, Leadership, and Accountability.   We were not going to compromise on ANY of these 4 things – as an example, one of our favorite lines that came out of this was “We will not sacrifice quality at the altar of expediency”.   That sent the message loud and clear – and we had the leadership and accountability to back it up.


12. Set the Mantra

Great leaders need a mantra – that is, some key phrase or sentence that is transferred to the lips and hearts of all they lead (notice I didn’t call this a “mission statement”).  In our company, we used this:  “Working For You to provide Quality Service”.   We relentlessly pushed it, and I believe it was a critical factor in the exponential improvements we subsequently made.


13. Relentlessly Push 3 Key Metrics

 We have to measure what we manage, and while all great businesses measure a lot of important things, there should always be a few that are tracked and known to ALL teammates.   We used 4  – Financial Results, Customers Perspectives, Operational Issues, Leadership, Leaning and Development.  Note how these  things could be tied to the values, the immutables, and the mantra.


14. Connect It All to Employee Happiness (and Yours)

If we focus on all of those other steps (the mantra, the metrics, the values, etc), and we’ll succeed.  And guess what? That will also make us happy and fulfilled.    But here’s the really cool part – remember my “why?” back in step one?   It was  – “make a difference for my teammates, my company, and myself”.  As much as it depends on you, try to make employees happy.


15. Never Learn From Someone Threatened By Excellence

Never limit yourself to accommodate the insecurities of others. Your goal as a leader seeking for excellence is your own personal excellence first – and as such do not curtail the development of your skills, self-confidence or courage for anyone. If you are working for someone who is threatened by excellence, you are working for the wrong person and it can be very frustrating. If you are learning from someone who is threatened by excellence, you are learning the wrong lessons. If you are learning from a man who is scared of being eclipsed, you have already eclipsed him. My experience shows that those who are not interested in leadership excellence are usually threatened by it.  You have to carefully manoeuvre you way to a leadership role to promote a culture of leadership excellence.  You cannot give what you don’t have.


16. Make Trustworthy Friends

A leader must surround yourselves with friends he can trust if he is keen on leadership excellence. No man ever achieved anything great alone. It has never happened. Build trust by being trustworthy, and cultivating a shrewd sense of character. Do not allow yourself to fall into believing what you want to believe about a person because they are beautiful, strong and talented. Be honest with yourself. Make trustworthy friends and be trustworthy yourself.


17. Be Relentlessly Open About Your Intentions

Inspire others to join with you by the boldness and openness with which you act. Do not worry about others moving to cut off your plans. Your bold and decisive action will cut through such scheming, and seize the initiative. Learn the skill of quick and decisive action as a leader and you are on your road to excellence.


18. Always Say Exactly Enough To Be Understood Perfectly

Language is a tool. Use it. Learn how to use it as a master violinist plays a violin. It’s purpose is simple – the communication of ideas, feelings and concepts. Use it to communicate your intentions and plans, to inspire others to join with you. Just don’t talk too much for too long. You have work to do. Presentation can make the difference. That is a major strength in leaders like Bill Clinton, the former President of USA, and President Barack Obama.


19. Your Reputation is Incidental

Good reputation is symptomatic of leadership excellence, and not causal – that is to say, it happens around you when you cultivate excellence inside yourself and live courageously. Do not hide from reputation, and do not be ashamed to stand up and be counted, but do not get lost in it’s pursuit. If you focus on your reputation in and of itself, that reputation will have no substance to back it up. If you concentrate primarily on excellence, and make reputation a secondary concern, then you will have a powerful foundation should your reputation come under assault. Never attack the reputation of others. Instead, look to their hearts, and see if they pursue excellence, or something else.


20. Do Not Shy From Attention

This is a world of indolence and apathy. Many people are seduced by the myriad of toys, games, flashing lights and drama which surround us in the modern age. As such, mediocrity is commonplace. But the potential for excellence is within everyone. As such, you must expect that your excellence will draw attention. Use it. Use that attention to project your excellence into the world, to inspire others. Do not stand out just for the sake of standing out, but stand out by the quality of your life, and the person you are. And do not hide yourself, so that others can learn not only from your successes but from your mistakes as well.


Lere Baale is a Director of Business School Netherlands www.bsn.eu and a Certified Strategy Consultant at Howes Consulting Group www.howesgroup.com

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *