• As I near the end of all of that and think back on what I’ve learned, these are the ten principles that strike me as necessary to true leadership. I hope they’ll serve you as well as they’ve served me.
    • Optimism. One of the most important qualities of a good leader is optimism, a pragmatic enthusiasm for what can be achieved. Even in the face of difficult choices and less than ideal outcomes, an optimistic leader does not yield to pessimism. Simply put, people are not motivated or energized by pessimists.
    • Courage. The foundation of risk-taking is courage, and in ever-changing, disrupted businesses, risk-taking is essential, innovation is vital, and true innovation occurs only when people have courage. This is true of acquisitions, investments, and capital allocations, and it particularly applies to creative decisions. Fear of failure destroys creativity.
    • Focus. Allocating time, energy, and resources to the strategies, problems, and projects that are of highest importance and value is extremely important, and it’s imperative to communicate your priorities clearly and often.
    • Decisiveness. All decisions, no matter how difficult, can and should be made in a timely way. Leaders must encourage a diversity of opinion balanced with the need to make and implement decisions. Chronic indecision is not only inefficient and counterproductive, but it is deeply corrosive to morale.
    • Curiosity. A deep and abiding curiosity enables the discovery of new people, places, and ideas, as well as an awareness and an understanding of the marketplace and its changing dynamics. The path to innovation begins with curiosity.
    • Fairness. Strong leadership embodies the fair and decent treatment of people. Empathy is essential, as is accessibility. People committing honest mistakes deserve second chances, and judging people too harshly generates fear and anxiety, which discourage communication and innovation. Nothing is worse to an organization than a culture of fear.
    • Thoughtfulness. Thoughtfulness is one of the most underrated elements of good leadership. It is the process of gaining knowledge, so an opinion rendered or decision made is more credible and more likely to be correct. It’s simply about taking the time to develop informed opinions.
    • Authenticity. Be genuine. Be honest. Don’t fake anything. Truth and authenticity breed respect and trust.
    • The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection. This doesn’t mean perfectionism at all costs, but it does mean a refusal to accept mediocrity or make excuses for something being “good enough.” If you believe that something can be made better, put in the effort to do it. If you’re in the business of making things, be in the business of making things great.
    • Integrity. Nothing is more important than the quality and integrity of an organization’s people and its product. A company’s success depends on setting high ethical standards for all things, big and small. Another way of saying this is: The way you do anything is the way you do everything.
  • To tell great stories, you need great talent.

  • Now more than ever: innovate or die. There can be no innovation if you operate out of fear of the new.

  • I talk a lot about “the relentless pursuit of perfection.” In practice, this can mean a lot of things, and it’s hard to define. It’s a mindset, more than a specific set of rules. It’s not about perfectionism at all costs. It’s about creating an environment in which people refuse to accept mediocrity. It’s about pushing back against the urge to say that “good enough” is good enough.

  • Take responsibility when you screw up. In work, in life, you’ll be more respected and trusted by the people around you if you own up to your mistakes. It’s impossible to avoid them; but it is possible to acknowledge them, learn from them, and set an example that it’s okay to get things wrong sometimes.

  • Be decent to people. Treat everyone with fairness and empathy. This doesn’t mean that you lower your expectations or convey the message that mistakes don’t matter. It means that you create an environment where people know you’ll hear them out, that you’re emotionally consistent and fair-minded, and that they’ll be given second chances for honest mistakes.

  • Excellence and fairness don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Strive for perfection but always be aware of the pitfalls of caring only about the product and never the people.

  • True integrity—a sense of knowing who you are and being guided by your own clear sense of right and wrong—is a kind of secret leadership weapon. If you trust your own instincts and treat people with respect, the company will come to represent the values you live by.

  • Value ability more than experience, and put people in roles that require more of them than they know they have in them.

  • Ask the questions you need to ask, admit without apology what you don’t understand, and do the work to learn what you need to learn as quickly as you can.

  • Managing creativity is an art, not a science. When giving notes, be mindful of how much of themselves the person you’re speaking to has poured into the project and how much is at stake for them.

  • Don’t start negatively, and don’t start small. People will often focus on little details as a way of masking a lack of any clear, coherent, big thoughts. If you start petty, you seem petty.

  • Of all the lessons I learned in my first year running prime time at ABC, the acceptance that creativity isn’t a science was the most profound. I became comfortable with failure—not with lack of effort, but with the fact that if you want innovation, you need to grant permission to fail.

  • Don’t be in the business of playing it safe. Be in the business of creating possibilities for greatness.

  • Don’t let ambition get ahead of opportunity. By fixating on a future job or project, you become impatient with where you are. You don’t tend enough to the responsibilities you do have, and so ambition can become counterproductive. It’s important to know how to find the balance—do the job you have well; be patient; look for opportunities to pitch in and expand and grow; and make yourself one of the people, through attitude and energy and focus, whom your bosses feel they have to turn to when an opportunity arises.

  • My former boss Dan Burke once handed me a note that said: “Avoid getting into the business of manufacturing trombone oil. You may become the greatest trombone-oil manufacturer in the world, but in the end, the world only consumes a few quarts of trombone oil a year!” He was telling me not to invest in small projects that would sap my and the company’s resources and not give much back. I still have that note in my desk, and I use it when talking to our executives about what to pursue and where to put their energy.

  • When the people at the top of a company have a dysfunctional relationship, there’s no way that the rest of the company can be functional. It’s like having two parents who fight all the time. The kids know, and they start to reflect the animosity back onto the parents and at each other.

  • As a leader, if you don’t do the work, the people around you are going to know, and you’ll lose their respect fast. You have to be attentive. You often have to sit through meetings that, if given the choice, you might choose not to sit through. You have to listen to other people’s problems and help find solutions. It’s all part of the job.

  • We all want to believe we’re indispensable. You have to be self-aware enough that you don’t cling to the notion that you are the only person who can do this job. At its essence, good leadership isn’t about being indispensable; it’s about helping others be prepared to step into your shoes—giving them access to your own decision-making, identifying the skills they need to develop and helping them improve, and sometimes being honest with them about why they’re not ready for the next step up.

  • A company’s reputation is the sum total of the actions of its people and the quality of its products. You have to demand integrity from your people and your products at all times.

  • Michael Eisner used to say, “micromanaging is underrated.” I agree with him—to a point. Sweating the details can show how much you care. “Great” is often a collection of very small things, after all. The downside of micromanagement is that it can be stultifying, and it can reinforce the feeling that you don’t trust the people who work for you.

  • Too often, we lead from a place of fear rather than courage, stubbornly trying to build a bulwark to protect old models that can’t possibly survive the sea change that is under way. It’s hard to look at your current models, sometimes even ones that are profitable in the moment, and make a decision to undermine them in order to face the change that’s coming.

  • If you walk up and down the halls constantly telling people “the sky is falling,” a sense of doom and gloom will, over time, permeate the company. You can’t communicate pessimism to the people around you. It’s ruinous to morale. No one wants to follow a pessimist.

  • Pessimism leads to paranoia, which leads to defensiveness, which leads to risk aversion.

  • Optimism emerges from faith in yourself and in the people who work for you. It’s not about saying things are good when they’re not, and it’s not about conveying some blind faith that “things will work out.” It’s about believing in your and others’ abilities.

  • People sometimes shy away from big swings because they build a case against trying something before they even step up to the plate. Long shots aren’t usually as long as they seem. With enough thoughtfulness and commitment, the boldest ideas can be executed.

  • You have to convey your priorities clearly and repeatedly. If you don’t articulate your priorities clearly, then the people around you don’t know what their own should be. Time and energy and capital get wasted.

  • You can do a lot for the morale of the people around you (and therefore the people around them) just by taking the guesswork out of their day-to-day life. A lot of work is complex and requires intense amounts of focus and energy, but this kind of messaging is fairly simple: This is where we want to be. This is how we’re going to get there.

  • Technological advancements will eventually make older business models obsolete. You can either bemoan that and try with all your might to protect the status quo, or you can work hard to understand and embrace it with more enthusiasm and creativity than your competitors.

  • It should be about the future, not the past.

  • It’s easy to be optimistic when everyone is telling you you’re great. It’s much harder, and much more necessary, when your sense of yourself is on the line.

  • Treating others with respect is an undervalued currency when it comes to negotiating. A little respect goes a long way, and the absence of it can be very costly.

  • You have to do the homework. You have to be prepared. You certainly can’t make a major acquisition, for example, without building the necessary models to help you determine whether a deal is the right one. But you also have to recognize that there is never 100 percent certainty. No matter how much data you’ve been given, it’s still, ultimately, a risk, and the decision to take that risk or not comes down to one person’s instinct.

  • If something doesn’t feel right to you, it won’t be right for you.

  • A lot of companies acquire others without much sensitivity toward what they’re really buying. They think they’re getting physical assets or manufacturing assets or intellectual property (in some industries, that’s more true than others). But usually what they’re really acquiring is people. In a creative business, that’s where the value lies.

  • As a leader, you are the embodiment of that company. What that means is this: Your values—your sense of integrity and decency and honesty, the way you comport yourself in the world—are a stand-in for the values of the company. You can be the head of a seven-person organization or a quarter-million-person organization, and the same truth holds: what people think of you is what they’ll think of your company.

  • There have been many times over the years when I’ve had to deliver difficult news to accomplished people, some of whom were friends, and some of whom had been unable to flourish in positions that I had put them in. I try to be as direct about the problem as possible, explaining what wasn’t working and why I didn’t think it was going to change. There’s a kind of euphemistic corporate language that is often deployed in those situations, and that has always struck me as offensive. If you respect the person, then you owe them a clear explanation for the decision you’re making. There’s no way for the conversation not to be painful, but at least it can be honest.

  • When hiring, try to surround yourself with people who are good in addition to being good at what they do. Genuine decency—an instinct for fairness and openness and mutual respect—is a rarer commodity in business than it should be, and you should look for it in the people you hire and nurture it in the people who work for you.

  • In any negotiation, be clear about where you stand from the beginning. There’s no short-term gain that’s worth the long-term erosion of trust that occurs when you go back on the expectation you created early on.

  • Projecting your anxiety onto your team is counterproductive. It’s subtle, but there’s a difference between communicating that you share their stress—that you’re in it with them—and communicating that you need them to deliver in order to alleviate your stress.

  • Most deals are personal. This is even more true if you’re negotiating with someone over something he or she has created. You have to know what you want out of any deal, but to get there you also need be aware of what’s at stake for the other person.

  • If you’re in the business of making something, be in the business of making something great.

  • The decision to disrupt a business model that is working for you requires no small amount of courage. It means intentionally taking on short-term losses in the hope that a long-term risk will pay off. Routines and priorities get disrupted. Traditional ways of doing business get slowly marginalized and eroded—and start to lose money—as a new model takes over. That’s a big ask, in terms of a company’s culture and mindset. When you do it, you’re saying to people who for their entire careers have been compensated based on the success of their traditional business: “Don’t worry about that too much anymore. Worry about this instead.” But this isn’t profitable yet, and won’t be for a while. Deal with this kind of uncertainty by going back to basics: Lay out your strategic priorities clearly. Remain optimistic in the face of the unknown. And be accessible and fair-minded to people whose work lives are being thrown into disarray.

  • It’s not good to have power for too long. You don’t realize the way your voice seems to boom louder than every other voice in the room. You get used to people withholding their opinions until they hear what you have to say. People are afraid to bring ideas to you, afraid to dissent, afraid to engage. This can happen even to the most well-intentioned leaders. You have to work consciously and actively to fend off its corrosive effects.

  • You have to approach your work and life with a sense of genuine humility. The success I’ve enjoyed has been due in part to my own efforts, but it’s also been due to so much beyond me, the efforts and support and examples of so many people, and to twists of fate beyond my control.

  • Hold on to your awareness of yourself, even as the world tells you how important and powerful you are. The moment you start to believe it all too much, the moment you look at yourself in the mirror and see a title emblazoned on your forehead, you’ve lost your way.

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