Insights for Leaders

Fox vs. Hedgehog

“Management is about coping with complexity. Leadership, by contrast, is coping with change. More change demands more leadership.” — John Kotter

In 1953, Isaiah Berlin wrote a famous essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” (taken from an ancient Greek parable) that observed: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Jim Collins writes in best seller Good to Great, “Hedgehogs are not stupid. Quite the contrary. They understand that the essence of profound insight is simplicity….They have a piercing insight that allows them to see through complexity and discern underlying patterns.”

The fox represents management that is constantly aware of many complexities and options, while the hedgehog represents leaders who simplify a complex world into a single concept that unifies and guides everything.

The Bottom Line: Leaders simplify complexity with piercing insight that enables them to effectively lead through change.

The Leadership Myth

“I would say that most leaders are made.” — General D. Eisenhower

Harvard leadership guru, Warren Bennis, writes: “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born — that there is a genetic factor to leadership.  This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not.  That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true.  Leaders are made rather than born.

Kenneth Chenault, CEO of American Express observes: “There are some people who are born leaders.  But the best leaders work at it day in and day out.”

The Bottom Line: Leaders don’t rely on their genetics; they diligently develop the many qualities required of leadership.


2 Ears and 1 Mouth

“If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two mouths and one ear.” — Mark Twain

J.W. Marriott Jr., CEO of Marriott International asserts: “After more than fourty years in business, I’ve concluded that listening is the single most important on-the-job skill that a good manager can cultivate.”

Best-selling author/consultant Stephen Covey writes, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood is the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations.”

The Bottom Line: Leaders are keen listeners — they know that one of the best ways to learn and influence others is with their ears.

Personal Leadership

“Know thyself.” — Socrates

Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to summit Mount Everest observed, “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”  Prolific 19th century author/speaker Charles Spurgeon warned, “Beware of no man more than yourself; we carry our worst enemies within us.”

Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Everybody thinks of changing humanity and nobody thinks of changing himself.”

The Bottom Line: Leaders understand it is essential to know, change and lead oneself before you can effectively lead others.


“The price of greatness is responsibility.” — Winston Churchill

Responsibility: the ability to respond properly to a situation or circumstance, is a leadership essential.  An ”I must do something” attitude always solves more problems than, “Something must be done.”

Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz states, “A lot of what we ascribe to luck is not luck at all.  It’s seizing the day and accepting responsibility for your future.”  Dr. Booker T. Washington, born into slavery but set free after the Civil War wrote, “Few things can help an individual more than to place responsibility on him, and to let him know that you trust him.”

The Bottom Line: Leaders are skilled in their ability to respond, and, they insist their people own both present circumstances and future aspirations.

‘On the Job’ Training

“What we have to learn, we learn by doing.” — Aristotle

Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline (recognized by HBR as one of the top management books of the last 75 years), writes: “Human beings learn best through firsthand experience…but ‘learning by doing’ only works so long as the feedback from our actions is rapid and unambiguous.”

This is where much ‘on the job training’ falls short – the lack of effective feedback can significantly impair one’s ability to climb a new learning curve. Feedback brings involvement that is critical to the learning process. That may be why Benjamin Franklin said, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

The Bottom Line: Leaders train their people through hands-on experience, actively involving them and providing clear and immediate feedback to their work.

Success from Failure

“I’ve often felt there might be more to be gained by studying business failures than business successes.” — Warren Buffett

Steve Jobs, who Fortune just named top CEO of the last decade, has described how “fortunate” he was to experience three traumatic set backs which all contributed to his stellar success — dropping out of college, his public firing from Apple (which he founded) in the 1980′s, and his struggle with cancer.

Soichiro Honda, founder of Honda Motor Co, writes, “To me success can only be achieved through repeated failure and introspection. In fact, success represents the one percent of your work that results from the ninety-nine percent that is called failure.”

The Bottom Line: Leaders don’t ‘waste failure’ — they learn from it, rise above it and try again.

Servant Leadership

“Leaders we admire do not place themselves at the center; they place others there. They do not seek the attention of people; they give it to others.” — James Kouzes and Barry Posner

Leadership gurus Kouzes and Posner add, “They (leaders) do not focus on satisfying their own aims and desires; they look for ways to respond to the needs and interests of others. Being a servant may not be what many leaders had in mind when they chose to take the responsibility of their organization, but serving others is the most glorious and rewarding of all leadership tasks.”

Author Max de Pree writes, “The first responsibility of the leader is to define reality, the last is to say ‘Thank you’, and in between the leader is a servant.”

The Bottom Line: Leaders understand that as they strategically serve their people, their people will accept their leadership and empower them to lead.

The Best Leaders

“Self-praise is for losers. Be a winner. Stand for something. Always have class, and be humble.” — John Madden

Jim Collins writes in his new book, How the Mighty Fall: “The best leaders we’ve studied had a peculiar genius for seeing themselves as not all that important, recognizing the need to build an executive team and to craft a culture based on core values that do not depend upon a single heroic leader.”

For some of us, it is time to resign from our assumed role of ‘Chancellor of the Universe.’ Norman Vincent Peale put it this way: “Drop the idea that you are Atlas carrying the world on your shoulders. The world would go on even without you. Don’t take yourself so seriously.”

The Bottom Line: Leaders are humble — more concerned about building the team than exalting self.

Leading Into Danger

“Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So…get on your way!” — Dr. Seuss

Harvard leadership guru John Kotter writes, “Great leadership does not mean running away from reality. Sometimes the hard truths might just demoralize the company, but at other times sharing difficulties can inspire people to take action that will make the situation better.”

Sir Ernest Shackelton ran an advertisement in “The London Times” in 1907 looking for people to accompany him on an expedition to the South Pole which read, “WANTED: People to undertake hazardous journey; small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.” No one expected that Shackelton would get takers, but he was swamped with replies.

The Bottom Line: Leaders know how to filter challenges, at times sheltering people from those truths but at other times using the cold hard facts to inspire commitment.