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5 Leadership Lessons You Won't Learn in B-School

Forget vision, passion, and other B-school platitudes. Here are the nitty-gritty details on what makes leaders great.
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First he spoke about the importance of inspiration. Then he talked about the power of passion. Then he discussed the value of vision.

Then I almost fell asleep.

I was sitting in on a class, and the professor was describing the traits of a great leader. I certainly didn't disagree with his list: vision, passion, inspiration, dedication, fairness, accountability. Those are important traits of a great leader. Still, I realized I would retain very little of what he said. Platitudes are hard to remember, much less put into practice.

After all, "Inspire your team" is great advice, but how do you pull that off?

So, as I walked away, I realized that most of what I know about leadership didn't come from business schools or conferences or seminars.

The best leadership lessons are ones I learned the hard way:

1. Data comes and goes, but feelings last forever.

Facts and figures are important. Explaining the logic and reasoning behind a decision can help create buy-in and commitment. Charts, graphs, tables, results, etc., are useful--and quickly forgotten.

But make an employee feel stupid or embarrass him in front of other people and he will never forget.

An employee made a comment in a meeting, and I instinctively fired off a sarcastic comeback. (For a long time, I was like a sarcastic-comment sniper, who figured that if I had the witty shot, I should always take it.) Everyone laughed but him.

And our working relationship changed forever. I apologized on the spot and apologized again later, but the damage was already done.

Spend twice the time thinking about how employees will feel than you do thinking about data and logic. Correcting a data mistake is easy. Overcoming damage you cause--whether intentional or not--to an employee's self-esteem is impossible.

2. Great ideas are never found in presentations.

Presentations are a great way to share detailed and complex information. Presentations are a terrible way to share great ideas.

After I drank too deeply from the Six Sigma Kool-Aid, I started interrupting employees who came to me with ideas by telling them to "put something together." Some would: Then we'd whip out our multicolored belts and talk intelligently about their data, their analysis techniques, their conclusions... Ugh.

Most wouldn't bother. Looking back, I don't blame them.

Great ideas can be captured in one or two sentences. Your employees have those ideas.

All you have to do is listen. And your employees will love you for listening, because I guarantee people they used to work for never did.

3. The "volunteer penalty" kills the flow of great ideas.

Your best employees tend to come up with the best ideas. It's natural to assign responsibility for carrying out an idea to the person who came up with the idea. Plus, if that person is a great employee, it's natural to want them to take responsibility, because they're more likely to get it done.

Of course, your best employees are already working extremely hard, so assigning them responsibility every time they have a suggestion naturally stops their flow of ideas.

As one outstanding employee finally explained to me, "I finally realized I needed to stop suggesting things to you, because every time I did you just added another responsibility to my plate."

Sometimes the employee will welcome the responsibility for carrying out their idea. Other times they won't.

How do you know which way a particular employee will respond?

Ask.

4. Sharing only the positive always results in a negative.

Imagine you're sharing the reasoning behind a decision with your team. Naturally, you describe the positive outcomes of the decision. So you whip out your pom-poms and start cheering.

Meanwhile your employees are instinctively looking for negatives, since almost every silver lining for the business has a black cloud for at least a few employees. I once described how a change to paper dust collection would improve the air quality throughout the plant, but I left out the fact that as a result a few employees would spend at least part of each day looking like they had rolled in a bathtub filled with flour.

Never leave out the negatives, even if those negatives may be potential rather than actual. Talk openly about any downsides, especially when those downsides directly affect employees. Show you understand the best and the worst that can happen and what that might mean to your team.

When you freely discuss potential negatives, employees not only respect you more, they often work harder to make sure those potential negatives don't occur.

5. Data is accurate, but people are right.

You're smart. You're talented. You're educated. Data analysis is your best friend. Sometimes your data will lead to an inescapable conclusion, and yet you should still make a different decision.

I once moved two crews of about 30 people to a different shift rotation because I knew the resulting process flow would automatically improve overall productivity by about 10%. I also knew--because they told me--that most of them would hate the new rotation, but I held firm, because I knew great leaders are willing to make tough decisions and do whatever it takes to get results.

It turns out I had that all wrong.

Sure, my new shift rotation worked on paper. It even worked in practice. But it screwed up the family lives of a number of great employees, and I finally pulled my head out of my (butt) and shifted everyone back to the old rotation. We found other ways to improve productivity.

Sometimes a decision should be based on more than analysis, logic, and reasoning. No decision should ever be made in a vacuum, because a decision must eventually be carried out by people.

Leadership should be data driven, but great leadership is often subjective and even messy.

If your employees don't agree with you, ask why, but don't ask just so you can defend your position. Ask in order to learn.

You know things your employees don't know, and they know things you don't know--until you listen to what they say.

Last updated: Aug 30, 2012

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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