Essential Ingredients of Leadership Excellence


“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

– John Quincy Adams

My introduction to leadership can be accurately described as a rude one. At the young age of 25, I got fired like every other staff in a German marketing firm. Few days later, six of us were recalled to resume but the managing director decided that I would henceforth be the head of the new team as he was also being recalled back to Germany.

I got this new big office, a secretary, and a mandate to manage five other older employees across the country in a business that had just been downsized and reorganised.  In a culture where age is critical, I learnt early how to humbly lead the team to success without being perceived as directing or supervising them. I was afraid to use the new authority and learnt early how to use persuasive methods to gain people’s commitment to a collective vision.

That was the highlight of my first year as a manager on the job, and it didn’t take long for me to realise that this “executive thing” was going to be a lot harder to master than I thought. I was essentially thrown in the pool, head first, but having survived those first few shaky days, weeks and months, followed by over 25 years of experience in several very successful businesses,   I’ve learnt many valuable lessons that have shaped and moulded me into the “half-full” leader I am today.


New understanding

With hindsight now, I wish I had some kind of guidebook that, at the very least warned me about the things I just absolutely had to know before I got started.    I had to learn these things on the job, sometimes painfully.    I wish I had someone sit me down as I was in the midst of my decision-making and say, quite firmly, “Command and control” is NOT the way to lead, despite what you may think, or what you may have seen from the outside.

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Now that all these years have passed, and as a more humble, self-aware, and human style of leadership has proven itself to be the more successful template, I would have thought that businesses would be much more aware of the benefits of actively preparing and training young leaders in this style.   But this costs money and time; so training often goes to the wayside in favour of doing essentially the same thing as what happened to me – throwing new leaders in the pool.

I started writing about leadership few years ago, as a way to share my hard-earned lessons with leaders of all stripes, but particularly new and those who understand that there is always room for improvement – the ones looking for the kind of guidance that I looked for. I’ve covered lots of topics throughout those years, but I’ve never assembled a list of those “absolutely need to know things” – until now.

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It’s really the foundation on which these lessons can be most effectively practised, because successful leaders also have to set the right tone of humility and self-confidence.  So, take a look at these lessons – read them, absorb them, talk about them with your mentors and peers.  And THEN jump into a great leadership career.


Fundamental requirements

Every successful leader gets this question posed to them at one time or another: “How did you do it?” It’s always enlightening to read and hear the answers, because, after all, these people have the benefit of hindsight to piece together all the relevant and important steps that led them to the top of the heap. I have been fortunate enough in my 31-year career to have observed and asked several of my tough mentors, coaches and leaders and to have been asked that same question too, and after a good bit of reflection, I can break it down to several essentials, not necessarily in any particular order.


Declare your intention to lead and why

A number of leaders are not successful because they are not prepared for leadership. Before you can even start the journey, you have to WANT to do it.   I also drifted around for some years dissatisfied and complaining about leaders as an executive before I finally sat down and wrote “I want to be a leader in this area”, and more importantly, also wrote down the “why“.

That was the real beginning of the journey, declaring that intention. It’s a very powerful exercise well worth doing. You may need to do same today as you read through this column.  It is never too late. Mr Kentucky at age 70 decided it was time to lead in the fried chicken business. The reality of his success as KFC today is that it is never too late.


  1. Write down your “Rules of the Road”

This is another “put it on paper” – personal rules to guide your leadership and your life going forward.  I wrote my list back in 1984, and my favourite rule remains the first one – “Trust in the Lord with all your heart. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths.”


  1. Pursue the 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 “motivators”.  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.

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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 behaviour 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 for extravagant praise or a fantastic raise or bonus; and nobody works with much anxiety because it is rare that 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


  1. Teach and model instead of telling

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 and modelling what you are teaching.   To combat this tendency I have come up with five ways to make sure my messages not only stick, but impart valuable and lasting lessons:

Repetition – This is the secret to learning. 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.

Consistency – Hypocrisy and mixed messaging are sure-fire learning killers – you need to have one story and stick to it.

Plain English –  I always encourage my staff to say more with less, and remind them we are not paid by the word.

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”.

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”

A mentor, Mr Ola Tubi, gave me a great book in 1996 to celebrate my appointment to the board of Pfizer. It is titled “Walk The Talk” and emphasises the need to model what you are teaching. It is a tough thing to do initially, but with time you will get used to it and you would have less tension on your leadership role. Your credibility will also soar.

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  1. Trust the facts

There is so much to admire about one of the founding fathers of the USA. During the drive for independence, John Adams (second president) always stood out to me, because of the tenacity of his leadership and his steadfast reliance on facts.

When arguing for the independence of the USA, Adams would again and again remind his fellow congress attendees that the facts could not be ignored – the British had already essentially declared war on the colonies by their words and actions against them. There was no choice but to stand up to the tyranny and declare independence.

Earlier on in his career, Adams uttered this famous quote:   “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” It is a valuable lesson to take from him – applied to our world of business by the well-known maxim, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it“.

No matter how well we THINK things are going, or we HEAR things are going, if the facts say otherwise – they MUST rule. Therefore it is vitally important that we generate the appropriate and relevant facts in our businesses that guide our decision making, and temper any feelings or emotions that may obfuscate those facts and put us down the wrong path.


  1. Know “the secrets of work”

I have discovered the secrets of how work can ultimately be fulfilling and life-enhancing for any individual. All leaders should know them if they are to build a great team.

  • Work must be done with passion
  • The work must be for a cause greater than ourselves
  • It ultimately must be fun, or it is not worth doing

These three are a set – that is, you cannot just get to two out of the three with your teammates and call it good.  We need to get to the fun part, and that is all too often neglected. I see “fun” when the passion and the cause are making a difference – when a group of people are continually hitting targets and raising bars – in other words, to use a sports analogy, they are “winning”. And who does not enjoy being a winner? Think of the camaraderie, the smiles, the feelings of satisfaction, the pats on the back, and yes, the celebrations.

In fact, I regularly ask my team if they are having fun, because I am confident that the foundations of the “secrets of work”, the passion and the cause, are already in place. Apply these secrets yourself, and get your team across the goal line to the fun zone

Continues next edition


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