Like a backflip on skis, most leadership advice – whether you heard it in business school or from a “self-educated” YouTube entrepreneur– can only be mastered with experience.
For those still lacking experience, however, the next best thing is to learn from someone else’s. With that in mind, we asked leaders from business and politics for the leadership lessons they learned on the job. From the stories they shared, it turns out we have a lot to unlearn instead.
Here are five leadership mantras debunked:
1. Treat others the way you want to be treated
Ergo, manage others the way you want to be managed, motivate others the way you want to be motivated, tell others that their market research report would have been excellent coming from an intern, but that you expected much more from a senior analyst the way you yourself sometimes need tough love in order to get the ball rolling …
It doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to see how this piece of advice can be a slippery slope. That’s not to say leaders are being disingenuous about how they want to be treated – most wouldn’t be promoted to that role without some competitive spirit and willingness to put in the hours.
“When I was first promoted into a leadership role, I assumed that my team members were motivated by the same things that motivated me: rah-rah energy, high fives, contests to reward performance, come in early, stay late, live to work, etc.,” said Bryan Zawikowski, vice president and general manager at Lucas Group, a recruiting firm. “I really ‘lived to work,’ assuming every team member felt the same way.”
Instead, Zawikowski’s team started to dwindle in performance. It finally took one comment from a tenured peer – “Don’t expect everyone to be just like you” – for Zawikowski to realize that his leadership style was to blame.
“The key takeaway was that everyone has a different set of motivators based on their personality and what is going on in their lives,” Zawikowski said. “I learned that if I was going to be an effective leader for the whole team, I was going to need to treat people the way they wanted to be treated, not the way I wanted to be treated.”
2. Fake it ’til you make it
For a textbook example of the “fake it ’til you make it” strategy, take Theranos or Fyre Festival, two of the most recent high-profile business failures. Both were so good at imitating the aura of successful tech startups that they attracted investors and publicity without having to show any bottom line. It wasn’t until it came time to show results, however, that their façade of credibility came tumbling down like a house of cards.
As it turns out, there’s a fine line between a display of confidence and deceit. A quieter majority has found success with the honest approach.
“I am firmly against the notion to ‘fake it ’til you make it,'” said Megan Tamte, who took on a leadership role for the first time after opening her store EVEREVE. “That’s encouraging people to pretend they know more than they do or [be] something they are not.”
Instead, Tamte attracted the kind of business partners and customers she wanted to associate with by “being honest, telling my story and explaining my ‘why’ to people.” The strategy paid off: EVEREVE made $120 million in sales in 2018 and is on pace to hit $150 million this year.
3. Think positive
Judging by the number of business self-help books on positive thinking, it appears we all suffer from a cripplingly pessimistic outlook. Judging by the fact that two-thirds of startups don’t survive the first decade, however, it appears many business leaders could use a dose of reality.
Hence, some experts caution against excessive positive thinking.
There are several ways positive thinking can be abused. From a management perspective, it’s a way to shut down others’ opinions and concerns by dismissing them as harmful negativity (again, see Fyre Festival). This should be validating for anyone who’s ever become enraged by the phrases “it’s all good” or “look on the bright side.”
From a decision-making perspective, it’s also a clever mind trick for delaying action on a bad situation. Left unchecked, this can snowball into collective denial.
Meanwhile, negative thinking can ensure survival.
“Being a small business owner in Southern California means always preparing for the worst when it comes to natural disasters like earthquakes and fires,” said Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation, a filing services company based in Calabasas. One recent example of how disaster preparedness can pay off is the Woolsey Fire, which swept through Calabasas in November 2018.
4. All’s well that ends well
If all’s well that ends well, then a good management style is any management style that checks boxes, turns a profit or yields growth.
This one may be harder to let go of, thanks to many companies’ obsession with the bottom line. But replace “all’s well that ends well” with the sinister near synonym “the ends prove the means,” and one can see how this can be a problematic way to evaluate a manager’s performance.
Luckily, there are other metrics that pick up the “soft skills” of management. When David Leonhardt worked as campaign manager for his friend’s 1997 bid for a seat in the Canadian parliament, his leadership would have been deemed a failure by any traditional performance-based measurement – the “bottom line” in this case being that they lost the election.
To say that this, however, would have been jumping to conclusions. For one thing, the party’s local vote share increased from the previous election, despite a decrease nationally. For another, “from a leadership perspective, one metric blew everything else away – volunteers abandoned campaigns in other electoral districts to work on our campaign, and they did so more and more as the election progressed,” Leonhardt said.
Leonhardt has since retired from partisan politics and is now president of THGM Writers, a ghostwriting service.
5. Literally, everything we just said
In the saturated market of business advice, all the points we’ve made in this article – cater to your employees, honesty is key, expect nothing, fear the worst, end performance isn’t everything – could probably be just as easily debunked.
The takeaway is not that some leadership advice is wrong but that the world is filled with nuance and no single tip should be treated as canon. Most readers will only be able to test these by jumping in the deep end and assuming that leadership role.
And once you’ve jumped in the deep end and learned your tried-and-true approach, always be prepared to consider new ideas and adjust.
“Leadership isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, and I had to learn that the hard way,” said Harrison Doan, director of analytics at Saatva. “There was a time when I would come into a new position with the tactics and strategies I’d learned from my old job and would immediately try to enact them as if I was working at the same place … This didn’t always work to my advantage.”
Experience may be essential, but an old dog must also be willing to learn new tricks.