Real Leaders

6 Hard-Learned Leadership Lessons

My leadership style has developed over three decades through learning from others, trial, and much error.  I continue to evolve – and hopefully improve – as a leader. Still, at this point, at least a few elements are foundational to how I approach the task and responsibility of leadership daily.

1. Structured Autonomy

I manage through philosophy and a system of “structured autonomy,” which attempts to strike a balance between direction and freedom. In practice, structured autonomy means that employees are given explicit annual goals called “Key Performance Indicators” (KPIs). These are simple, bullet-pointed metrics that the employee can refer to daily – the “structured” part. It’s then up to the employee to determine the best way to achieve those goals – that’s the “autonomy” part. My job as a manager is to be available for regular and impromptu check-ins, monitor progress, and provide advice and assistance when needed.

2. Employee Career Management 

One of my first supervisors taught me the lesson that my #1 job as a manager is to take care of the careers of my employees. I have never forgotten this lesson and try to treat the careers of my employees as if they were my own. I meet with every staff member and map out their career aspirations in one-, three- and five-year increments. We then plan the work at GNO, Inc. in service of those goals within the context of the overall GNO, Inc. strategy (we don’t “make work” if it’s not on strategy). Sometimes, that means planning the next steps beyond our company – that’s OK if the timing and the reason are right. In my experience, this elevation of the employee’s career leads to several positive outcomes: employees feel valued and are engaged; Our company builds a reputation as a great place to work; and GNO, Inc. alumni go out into the world as partners and ambassadors for our organization. In short, taking care of your employee’s careers leads to good HR karma. 

3. Delegation

This was a hard lesson for me to learn. I used to not be very good at delegation; I’m not sure if it was because I was a perfectionist or a martyr. Maybe both?  But then, one day, someone told me, “Anything that anyone can do 80% as well as you, they should be doing. Delegate it.” I have followed this rule since then, and it works beautifully.  

4. Looking Down + Looking Ahead 

More than ever, it seems that we are managing in a perpetual state of crisis. Whether it is a pandemic, weather event, financial crisis, or even war, uncertainty is the only sure thing. Leading under these conditions requires one to deal effectively with the crisis at hand while ensuring that progress continues towards long-term goals and opportunities. I liken this to walking on a trail in the forest: on the one hand, you have to keep an eye on the ground to make sure you don’t trip on a rock; on the other hand, you have to keep an eye on the distance, to make sure you are following the right path. For example, during the depths of COVID, GNO, Inc. helped craft the PPP program that provided immediate financial assistance to companies across America; at the same time, we developed a long-term strategy to attract remote workers who, post-COVID, would no longer be tied to offices in places like NYC and California.  

5. Modeling Behavior

This is a basic one but necessary. As a leader, you are modeling the behaviors that your organization values. The behaviors that I try to model are hard work, productivity, creativity, collegiality, and what we call “honest optimism” – an optimistic but grounded outlook on the future.

6. The Team is the Leader

Often in America, especially in the media, we focus on “The Leader” and neglect the team’s critical, symbiotic role. A leader is just one part of a greater whole, and no leader will succeed without an outstanding team.  “We > I” when it comes to leadership, the team leads, and the “leader” steers.

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