The Best Life Lessons from Great Leaders

The Best Life Lessons from Great Leaders on Pura Vida Sometimes

When I first started my career, I was ready to conquer the world and was sure I already had all the resources I needed to do so. I applied for jobs that were much bigger than me and I had grandiose dreams. I still have the dreams, but now have a better grasp on what it will take to accomplish them and of my place in the workforce. But when it comes down to it, when you’re first starting out, there’s a great reason that there’s a level playing field…at the bottom. In your early 20s, as much as you may hate to hear it, you have a lot to learn about work and life, and the only way to get from A to B is from experience and guidance.

Throughout my career, I’ve had some great experiences and some really terrible ones, which we’ll call lessons, and I’ve grown as a professional and also as a person. These are some of the lessons from great bosses and mentors that have stuck with me through the years.

The Best Life Lessons from Great Leaders on Pura Vida. Sometimes.
  • You can tell the quality of your character by the nature of your enemies. Without giving too much away, I was creating a program on behalf of my employer and a little bird who heard from another bird told me that I was making some of the figureheads angry. I went into my supervisor’s office concerned, and he basically congratulated me and told me the following: if you’re doing your job well, you’re not going to make everyone happy all the time. And some people will be unhappy with you regardless. It’s important to acknowledge whose opinion you value and who you want to ally with, but it’s equally if not more important to know whose opinions to consider discriminatingly or whose have the wrong motivators (like ego), and that when you piss them off, it might be a signal that you’re doing the right thing.
  • Good leaders know their weakness and find surround themselves with people who compensate for them. I walked into my boss’s office and told him I was very frustrated with our working dynamic. He chuckled and said he was well aware that what aggravated me about him was not his strength, which is why he hired me. To make up for it – it was my strength. He told me he was very self-aware, and also imperfect, but all the people he hired made up for his issues and ultimately together we made a perfect team. We freed him to do the things that made him an inspiring, visionary (and sometimes frustrating) leader.
  • The only authority you get is the authority you take. I was but a day or two into the best and worst job of my life, and I was having a casual conversation with a coworker (who maybe coincidentally, or not, was former military), and he looked at me deadpan and said, “The only authority you get is the authority you take.” His comment kind of took me off-guard and didn’t register at that point, but I’ve often reflected back as I start a new job and he was right. When you start somewhere new, especially if you’re in a leadership position, it’s important to carve out your place in the organization and establish yourself as the expert in what you were hired to do. Assume authority over your responsibilities and put yourself out there for other things you’re interested in. Don’t be the person that gets walked on, flounders, or that is constantly asked to fill in the gaps when there’s a task no one else wants (which is what eventually happened in this job).
  • Don’t present a problem unless it’s followed by a solution. I headed a team of very overqualified people doing a repetitive, menial but also necessary task for our company (see the previous bullet point). There were several inefficiencies in our process, and one afternoon I went to vent to my boss, who was the top stratum of leadership, always with a bucket of very large fish to fry. With a fresh MBA and a need to talk, I unloaded on him. He listened patiently, understanding and sympathizing, and when I finished, he thought for a second, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “So?” Uhh… I’m telling you about major inefficiencies and gaps in our process with potential legal ramifications. “I understand the issues,” he continued, “but what are the solutions. Come back to me with recommendations and we’ll talk.” Fair. He set good boundaries and didn’t involve himself when it wasn’t necessary, but he also empowered me to create positive change for my team. Since, I’ve used this on just about everyone I’ve managed, and it takes them off-guard, the way it did with me, but I have always been pleased how they rise to the occasion and grow with the responsibility and trust I place in them.
  • Be thoughtful and make your words count. Starting my career, I was a journalist and eventually an editor. My boss, the editor-in-chief of a semi-weekly newspaper, was an excellent mentor and great communicator, and when I first started, she handed back every story I wrote covered in red ink, or requesting a re-write, but by the time I moved on, I had a strong arsenal of writing tools and knew how to tell a good story (at least on paper – I flub on camera). Good storytelling focuses on and is built around the moral – if you’re a journalist, you lead with the goods, but in other mediums, maybe you save the punchline for the end. Whatever the structure of your tale, if there are words that don’t contribute or aren’t central to the idea (padding, fluff, confusion), edit them. Remove all words that are unnecessary or cause you to stumble or think twice. This is good practice in writing and in all communications.
  • Be honest but be nice. You’re hired to do a job, produce something, achieve – not win a popularity contest. With objective-driven decision-making, you won’t always agree with everyone you associate and work with. That said, being nice is an investment in the feelings and sensibilities of the people around you and it makes you easier to work going forward, makes difficult words easier to hear, is good karma, and is also in the long-run the most efficient way to get things done. No matter the news you’re delivering, be genuine and direct but also be nice.
The advice I’ve received at the end of my career may be drastically different that this – what I’ve found to be meaningful and helpful at a mid-point, but these are words I’ve carried with me from job to job, and even into my personal life. Do you have experience with similar lessons? What is the strongest piece of advice you’ve received that you always harken back to?
(Note: if you’re one of my ex-bosses or mentors reading this and I’ve quoted you – thank you. Deep, sincere thanks. I’ve had amazing luck in my professional life. My bosses haven’t just been managers, but leaders, mentors, and friends, and I am very grateful, and a strong professional because of you.)
Photos: Lead photo, Creative Commons. Photo of me: 21 years old, beginning my career as a photojournalist.

The Best Life Lessons from Great Leaders on Pura Vida Sometimes

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