14 Leadership Lessons from the School of Hard Knocks

Dwight Eisenhower certainly understood the concepts of being an effective, influential leader, didn’t he? Spot on. I have been in the military and business world for forty years, and I often get asked what it takes to be an effective, influential leader. And often leadership is not what you think. It is about lessons from the school of hard knocks.

lessons from the school of hard knocks
Lessons from the school of hard knocks.

Being a leader is a lifelong learning process. You are never done learning. Every great leader always looks for ways to improve their ability to lead and influence.

Related: Increase Influence through Good Leadership Qualities

Leadership can be deceiving if you let it, however. Consider these different thoughts on lessons from the school of hard knocks:


Understand expectations

It’s so easy to launch yourself into a project, to get straight to business when working with a new boss, and think that we’re productive. Take the time to clarify expectations upfront. This can avoid a whole lot of time wasting.

The same applies as an independent consultant. You can dive straight in and try to solve everything you think needs fixing, but that may or may not be what the client wanted. Clarifying those expectations at the beginning of the relationship, identifying three main areas where you’re going to focus your time and deliver results, will allow you to deliver the most value while making sure that the client is getting what they want.


understand expectations
Understand expectations.

Clear communications

At IBM in my early days, there was a whole system of words and expressions and those dreaded TLAs (three-letter acronyms) that you needed to understand to be able to communicate. Once you have the lingo, this will give you shortcuts to getting your point across and will ultimately get things done more quickly and in a way that everyone agrees with.

While this language code can be useful, we also need to remember the poor souls who aren’t quite up to speed. This can include new hires, of course, and external agencies, but you’ll be surprised how sometimes even the more experienced managers won’t have a clear idea of what you’re talking about.

Agree on a common definition upfront, and you’ll be more effective in delivering something that everyone is happy with. In fact, this goes beyond language to encompass fundamental values as well – establishing these upfront will ensure that everyone is on the same page.


School of hard knocks … take ownership

At school, we had parents and teachers telling us to do our homework – at work, not so much (especially when we’re freelancers or business owners). Of course, we have our managers and clients, and if we don’t deliver our projects we’re going to hear about it, but what we’re not going to have is someone leading us by the hand and telling us exactly what to do. We’re responsible for getting the job done in the time that we have and in whatever way we deem appropriate.

Even then, though, there are different levels of project delivery, and taking real ownership means going beyond just the bare minimum. Taking real ownership means being proactive and taking the initiative, staying on top of all the milestones and deadlines, following up with others to get their input, and looking beyond the obvious of what you’ve been asked to do to deliver added value. (In fact, you may remember that ownership is another of P&G’s top values.) This is again how you meet and exceed expectations.


Consistent goals and priorities

This is a big one! As “keen bean” junior managers, we bombard people with emails, we interrupt them at their desks, and we get huffy when they don’t deliver to our schedules and our specifications. Following up relentlessly shows commitment and drive but what it doesn’t show is emotional intelligence. Your priorities are just that, your priorities.

At IBM in particular, the whole organization was built on a system of checks and balances, which by definition meant that each function had a different set of priorities. Finance, of course, would have one set of success measures, marketing another, and the consumer research department yet another.

Working effectively with a multi-functional team means being sensitive to the context, understanding the particular perspective of each and what their goals are both globally and in specific reference to the topic at hand, and adapting our behavior accordingly. Step one here is treating the individual as a human being! Build a rapport and seek to understand where they are coming from and you’ll be much more effective working together in the long run.


More than performance

There was a “secret” model at IBM that we weren’t supposed to tell junior managers for fear that they would misunderstand it and change their behavior in an ill-advised way. The model was PIE and told you the “formula” for how promotions and salary increases would be applied. ‘P’ stands for ‘performance’ and this is what you’d expect, how well you do your job.

There are two more elements, however, which are ‘I’ – ‘image.’ This is how you are perceived by your peers and most of all your seniors – and ‘E’ – ‘exposure’ i.e. it’s no good doing wonderful work if no one knows who you are or what you’re doing.

So the trick is not to become a political animal and forget about doing any actual work, but likewise, there’s no point in putting your head down and getting on with it like a good girl and expecting someone to notice and reward you accordingly.

Instead, you need to be aware of these other two parts of the puzzle, image, and exposure, and make sure that while you’re delivering excellent work you’re also thinking about who needs to see that work and what impression you’re giving more generally in the organization. If nothing else, you never know who will be your next boss!


Do not rest on past successes

There is nothing more dangerous to life success than a great last result, is there? We are ‘only as good as our next result.’ Stay paranoid.


Make yourself a project

Hairdressing icon Vidal Sassoon was famous for having said: “The only place you’ll find success coming before work is in a dictionary.” We have to work on ourselves. Put pressure on ourselves. Critique our days. Give back to society. Be our very best coaches and cheering squads. All of this applies as much to our personal lives as for our business lives.


A priority ‘ninja’

Getting more of the important things done every day. Be obsessed with getting priorities rights, on what’s really important, every day, and make sure you spend the majority of your day on these priorities.


Embrace change  

embrace change
Embrace change.

Darwin said it was not the strongest of the species that survived, but the ablest to adapt to change. There will be more change in the next five years than we’ve seen in the past 50. Get excited by change. Be part of the most movements that you can. Help shake things up.


Accountable for continuous learning and development

At IBM, we changed assignments every several years, giving us an opportunity to gain experience in different aspects of our function (in my case, what we called marketing “design” and “delivery”) as well as different business units.

I was a superstar, of course, and I expected the offers to be falling at my feet – but I quickly learned that I needed to go out and look for the roles that I wanted. In doing so, I looked for something that would challenge me and let me learn new things while exposing me to different people (see #5!) and giving me broader experience that would stand me in good stead for future roles.

I also took ownership of my learning early on, making sure that I signed up for every possible training that I could benefit from in one way or another. Your boss will be busy, and may not be on top of exactly which courses you have and haven’t been on.

Personal growth and development are a top value for me, so this was particularly important in my case, but it’s something that is important for everybody in both their personal and their professional lives.

Woody Allen said: “85% of the secret of success is just turning up.” Turn up to events. Make that phone call. Read that book. Do that training. Have the courage to ask that question. Make an effort. Stay connected to what’s happening around you.


Focus on strengths, not weaknesses

Training and development are great, but while it’s admirable to try to get good at everything this is simply not possible, and both you and the business will be better served if you learn to focus on your areas of strength.

Of course, when we first start in a company or a role there will be certain things we need to learn to do – project management, time management, and so on – but beyond that, there will always be some freedom to discover what we’re good at and use that to our advantage.

IBM did this well: in our annual rating sessions we were asked to highlight our three biggest strengths and only one weakness, and even then we didn’t call it a weakness but an “opportunity.”

So you’re good at public speaking and delivering training workshops? Maybe you’re a number-crunching guru and a superstar at drawing up possible scenarios? Or what about creative brainstorming, getting the team excited behind a common vision, or mentoring interns?

Find opportunities to use your strengths, and you will shine.


Power of effective communications

I was amazing at writing at school, in fact, I was so good that my English teacher would make copies of my essays and hand them out to the rest of the class. Get me!

So it was a bit of a shock when I started my first job at P&G and found that essay writing was not the same thing as business writing. On top of that, an international environment where most people were not native speakers meant that simple and unambiguous communication was crucial.

Effective business writing had a specific objective, used clear and concise language, active tense rather than passive; it wasn’t about sounding clever or being poetic.

Learning to write an effective business document – a recommendation, a report, or just an email for that matter – will allow you to get your message across quickly and effectively, to influence people with a more persuasive argument, and to impress people with your convincing business results.

The ability to distil complicated matters into a clear and well thought-out message is a useful skill in all areas of life, above and beyond the corporate world.


Lessons from the school of hard knocks … making tradeoffs

Ah, choices. This is a biggie. The long-time guru of IBM, Tom Watson wrote about this frequently. We even had a made-up word, “choiceful,” that every manager worth his salt would drop into any given conversation. We have to be choiceful.

So what does this mean? Well, you can apply this at a couple of different levels. First, look at your project list. You need to identify which projects will have the biggest impact and then focus your time on those projects. It’s far too easy to get bogged down in little tasks and trivial details.

Second, at the macro level, a brand strategy is a choice: we’ll focus on this market OR this market, we’ll invest here OR there, we’ll prioritize this OR that. Giving a laundry list of every possibility, or saying that “it’s all important,” is the path to failure.


The bottom line


Being a leader is a lifelong learning process. You are never done learning. Every great leader always looks for ways to improve their ability to lead and influence. Never stop learning and relearning.




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Do you have a lesson about making your learning better you can share with this community? Have any questions or comments to add in the section below?


Mike Schoultz is the founder of Digital Spark Marketing, a digital marketing and customer service agency. With 40 years of business experience, he blogs on topics that relate to improving the performance of your business. Find them on G+Twitter, and LinkedIn.  


Digital Spark Marketing will stretch your thinking and your ability to adapt to change.  We also provide some fun and inspiration along the way. Call us for a free quote today. You will be amazed how reasonable we will be.


More reading on mentoring from Digital Spark Marketing’s Library:

Remarkable Lessons in Motivation Steve Jobs Taught Me

How to Create Honest Employee Trust and Empowerment

The Story and Zen of Getting Things Done

10 Positive Thinking Ideas from Peers and Mentors


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14 Leadership Lessons from the School of Hard Knocks