25 Timeless Leadership Lessons That Just Plain Work: Lessons 1-5

25 Timeless Leadership lessonsWith this post I’m pleased start a 5-part series that outlines 25 timeless leadership lessons – lessons that I’ve applied successfully during my 30+ year career as a leader and businessman.

They are filtered through my “More Human” perspective, a belief that great leaders can use their head AND their heart.  They feature a “Glass Half-Full”  blend of common sense realism and relentless optimism.   And, these practical lessons apply to all levels of leadership, from first-level supervisors to upper tier executives.

It’s a primer and distillation of a lifetime of learning, and practicing, the great art of leadership – my passion.

Here’s the entire list of 25, and today, I discuss the first 5 (they are in bold).  Stay tuned for the next 20 over the course of the next several weeks.

  1. Practice Full Spectrum Management
  2. Teach Instead of Tell
  3. Be an Enabler, Not a Disabler
  4. Develop a Zen-Like Mantra
  5. Avoid Inertia (and Push Forward)
  6. Trust the Facts
  7. Words Alone Don’t Make the Leader
  8. Blend Will and Humility
  9. Know “The Secrets of Work”
  10. Do the Unexpected
  11. Think Like an Interior Designer
  12. “It is Solved by Walking”
  13. Take the Leadership Litmus Test
  14. Bad News Can Be Good News
  15. Don’t Do Second Things First
  16. Avoid Nightmares in the Ivory Tower
  17. Pause and Refresh
  18. Shore Up the House of Cards
  19. Get a Life (If You Don’t Have One)
  20. Beware of the Accountability Trap
  21. Do Some Den Mothering
  22. Be Ever the Statesman
  23. Use The Seven Most Important Words
  24. Stay Away From the “Buts”
  25. No Square Pegs in Round Holes


1. Practice 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 “Touchy Feelyness“ (I use that term because someone once accused me of “being too touchy feely“).  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.

2. Teach Instead of Tell

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.   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:

  1. Repetition – I call this “Terry’s Rule” – 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.
  2. Consistency – Hypocrisy and mixed messaging are surefire learning killers – you need to have one story and stick to it.
  3. Plain English –  I always encourage my staff to say more with less, and remind them we are not paid by the word.
  4. 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”.
  5. “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”.

3. Be an Enabler, Not a Disabler

Trust is a magical thing in the workplace – I have personally seen many people grow two inches taller upon my utterance of these three simple words – “I trust you”.

It is a marvelously enabling act – and not without risk. It takes a lot of courage to let something go, since as humans we have a tendency to be control freaks. I can personally attest it is a pretty strong thing to resist.  But resist we must, because from a leadership perspective enabling reveals something else – our effectiveness in selecting and hiring teammates.

It is this simple – if we cannot entrust someone with proper responsibilities commensurate with the job description, we should not hire them. Having too many “disabled” teammates chains a leader to too much minutiae, and gives him or her much less freedom to do what leaders really should be doing – LEADING.

And that is the kind of freedom that leads us to our own promised land of job fulfillment. Henry David Thoreau sums it all up very nicely in this quote:

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone”

So set them free, and find the richness in your leadership life.

4. Develop a Zen-like Mantra

Several years ago I started practicing yoga, and discovered the benefits of reciting a mantra.    I was amazed by the focus that resulted from a simple utterance of a word or a phrase over and over again.  Duly enlightened, I decided to try it in the workplace.   I wanted to come up with something that could unify 1,100 people with a focus on common operating principles – a guiding light to overall success.

In the end, I came up with the “5 Things You Need to Know” – three of them were numbers (our key operational goals), and the other two were phrases:

“Serve our customers”

“Support each other”

I made it a requirement that EVERY person under my oversight know these 5 things.  Sure enough, this Zen-like mantra has had the desired effect – the productivity and efficiency of our business has improved much faster than it did before I introduced it.

Focus, focus, focus – until everyone has it, you can’t lead most effectively.

5. Avoid Inertia (and Push Forward)

What is wrong with the status quo?  For a leader, everything.

If you are not constantly moving forward as a leader, chances are your team (and thus your business) is heading in the opposite direction. Inertia is the worst thing that can happen to a business.   In pure physics terms, inertia is “the tendency of a body to resist acceleration“. In leadership terms, the “body” is the group of people you lead.

The leader is the outside force that provides the acceleration – the energy that propels the business forward.  Good leaders are energy conduits, inoculating their teammates from falling prey to complacency and injecting excitement and a desire to constantly improve.

And if you are really good at it, the force you generate can create what I call a “flywheel effect”, where the enterprise generates so much momentum that it can sustain itself indefinitely without much additional pushing on your own, save for the occasional course correction.

I know leaders are not usually referred to as “energy conduits“, but seen from the lens of basic physics, I believe it makes perfect sense.    In other words, when it comes to leadership and those we lead – “we snooze, they lose“.


That’s the first five – stay tuned for the next 5 timeless leadership lessons on February 13th. Until then, lead well! UPDATE: Lessons 6-10 are posted here, click on through!  11-15 are here, and 16-20 are here


  1. says

    Dear Terry,
    You must have gone through an enormous journey to be where you are today. I find your insights into human conduct remarkable, especially where it concerns transference of skill and success. God bless you and your team. There are probably hundreds across the world who benefit from your work. I am currently one of them.

  2. says


    Thank you for the first part of these timeless leadership lessons. I am looking forward to following up and learning from the rest! “Be an Enabler, Not a Disabler” is the one I tend to struggle with, so thank you for walking me though your thought process and reorienting myself with the long term success of trust!

    Danielle Elizabeth Aaronson

  3. says

    Thanks Danielle for your comment – looking back, the “enabler, not a disabler” lesson was the one that resonated the most with my team, and those we led, because many of us struggle with it sometimes (including myself.
    Thanks again, and all the best!


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