Brandt On Leadership -- Five Things I Wish I'd Known Sooner

Dec. 21, 2004
Leadership lessons from real life.

A year or so ago newscaster Maria Shriver came out with a book called "Ten Things I Wish I'd Known Before I Went Out into the Real World." This idea -- coming out with a book that was nothing more than stuff we already knew, packaged as nostalgic advice -- seemed like a pretty good scam to me so I decided to steal -- er, make that benchmark -- it. Here, then, is my list of Five Things I Wish I'd Known Sooner About Leadership, soon to be in bookstores everywhere: 1. I wish I'd known sooner just how damnably dumb about half the bosses I'd have in my career would be. When I got my first job, I was so wet behind the ears that when my boss said something that seemed crazy, I thought it was just because I was too much of a rube to understand it or because I wasn't really "business material." Only after the first half-dozen idiots or so did I realize it was the bosses who were crazy, not me. The wonder of it all, I now realize, isn't that half my bosses were stupid, but that I actually ended up with half who knew what they were doing. If I'd learned that sooner, I'd have had lower expectations for the rest and trusted myself more. (Note to former bosses who might be reading: No, I'm not going to name the dumb ones. You know who you are and you will, I have no doubt, act accordingly.) 2. I wish I'd known sooner that I wasn't the only leader making it up as I went along. There are a lot of great books on leadership out there. There are a lot of great mentors out there. But there's only so much you can learn from books or by watching great leaders, just as there's only so much (or so little, in my case) that you can learn by watching Tiger Woods play golf. Great leaders start with great character and clear objectives that are bigger than they and their organizations can hope to achieve. They use what they've learned from books for the first 10% and what they've learned from mentors for the next 40%. Everything else is improvisation and theft. If I'd known that sooner, I'd have worried less and made decisions faster with less regret. 3. I wish I'd known sooner how important every small thing, every single day, can be. I am dumbfounded by the opportunities I let slip by early in my career because I was too busy or too pigheaded or, well, too ignorant to recognize them as opportunities. If I'd known how often good fortune arrived in the last returned phone call of the day or how it might grow from the last extra hour spent on a report, I might have become a leader years sooner. 4. I wish I'd known what a pain-in-the-ass employee I was every time I didn't turn in my paperwork on time (or at all). I hate paperwork, as do all sane people. I try to eliminate unnecessary paperwork at every organization I advise. Yet the more complex the projects and organizations I lead become, the greater my appreciation grows for paperwork (or digital documents) as a vehicle for capturing and sharing knowledge throughout the value chain. I'm not talking about weekly sales or expense reports, important though they are; I'm talking about memoranda, presentations and reports that capture vital customer and market data and catalogue it for collaborative use. If I'd known sooner how important the drudgery of documentation is, I'd have made several organizations more profitable and myself more valuable. 5. I wish I'd known sooner how little most of what passed over my desk mattered. At this point I can only remember about 10 things I accomplished at my last position of lasting significance. From the position before that, maybe five accomplishments. From every place before that, maybe three each. If I'd have known then how few the lasting accomplishments from any job or project would be, I'd have spent more time on the big stuff and less energy worrying about all the little frustrations that accompany most jobs. Especially those dumb bosses. John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, now is president and publisher of the Chief Executive Group, publisher of Chief Executive magazine.

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