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Five Leadership Lessons to Unlearn

Posted by: Today's Tip Contributor on July 7, 2010

You can figure out who moved your cheese. You can become a one-minute manager while you go from good to great. You can even apply the art of war to the job of running a business. But there is nothing like taking over a struggling company whose shares fell dramatically when the dot-com bubble burst to really learn the lessons of effective leadership.

As the chief executive officer of a company that was forced to emerge from the ashes of the dot-com era with a much leaner workforce and a new business model, I have had to unlearn some of my most cherished leadership lessons. Here are the top five myths I overcame:

1. Leadership is a process. Leadership is a behavior, not a process. A process implies a routine set of repeatable steps, but true leaders continually lead others by what they do—not what they say. There is no cookbook process for taking a startup back to being private or trimming the workforce dramatically. No memo or town hall presentation will convey nearly as much as the closely observed, day-to-day actions of the CEO and his or her senior management team. Conversely, lack of action or the wrong action will immediately cancel out all those carefully chosen speaking points.

2. A leader needs to be ready with an answer. Being ready with a question can be far more productive. Questions allow for clarification. They quietly open the door to necessary conflict and can convey a message about incomplete staff work without causing embarrassment. Asking for input or ideas will not make a leader look weak. In fact, asking questions is what saved SciQuest after the dot-com flameout. The question was how to better distribute software to clients, and the team’s solution inadvertently led the company to become an early adopter of the software-as-a-service business model.

3. Great ideas come out of debate and conflict. Healthy conflict is a rarity. Conflict creates situations where ideas and people harden into "positions"—and positions are very difficult to change. Great ideas come from open, constructive, and positive discussion driven by questions. Everyone contributes and therefore buys in to the idea. As someone who began his career at GE and graduated from its infamous Financial Management Program, I know a lot about confrontation and sharp elbows. But experience has taught me that constructive discussions produce far better results.

4. A leader needs to maintain power and authority. Wrong. Give power and authority away every day. In meetings, understand where the power lies and respect the lack of it. One way to give away authority is to ask for feedback. If you as a leader are willing to receive that feedback, you’re teaching others how to receive it. As for anger, it is just plain counterproductive. It brings all dialogue and problem-solving to a halt at the worst possible time: when you need it most. A further way to give away authority is to hold company-wide social functions. Our company hosts employee and family outings and periodic "beer Fridays," which allows employees at any level to ask questions or give and receive feedback.

5. A leader mandates change. In times of crisis, yes—but at all other times, a leader must coax change. "Tell" is the normal behavior for CEOs, but "ask" is more powerful and longer-lasting. Focusing on positive reinforcement and removing stress from a situation yield better results.

Leading a company through a transformation often starts with unlearning before you can learn. If you run your business like an open kitchen and are not afraid to ask questions, it won’t matter who moved your cheese. You and your employees will find it together.

Stephen Wiehe
President and CEO
Cary, N.C.

Reader Comments

Pedro Fernandez

July 7, 2010 3:04 PM

This article is right on point. The points suggested embody the elements required for successful teamwork. You can have "teamwork" like most corporations do (North-Korean style) or real teamwork that you find at companies where the stock is in the hundreds of dollars (Google, Apple, Berkshire). The latter companies have a span of control of 100:1 or similar. Conventional corporations ask for your input (data on a spreadsheet) and interpret it for you to others and then the real state of the issue is misrepresented, thus leading to improper solutions.

oscar marroquin

July 9, 2010 10:00 AM

Very good article and excellent points! I would add that a leader must be prepared to make the unpopular decision. There needs to be a balance between maintaining the posiion to move quickly on important matters and respecting the important issues outlined in the article.


July 9, 2010 11:24 AM

There is a slight inconsistency where the writer discusses the value of conflict in rule #2 and the detriment of conflict in rule #3, however, I agree with most of what he shares as his learning experiences.

My favorite of his lessons happens to be number 1. (I don’t know if he ordered them according to priority…but it’s at the top of my list). I’ve discovered the following to be true about successful leadership: If YOU don’t respect your discipline (meaning the guidelines and objectives you’ve set for yourself…not “punishment”) no one else will. It’s a classic case of leading by open example.

Sometimes “leaders” feel the compulsion to present perfection…which is mission impossible and a primary ingredient for misery. Business/Team Leaders typically face a daily agenda that outweighs the “norm”…now imagine facing those tasks with the impossible goal of exuding continuous perfection and I bet you’ll understand why your “boss” is grumpy today (smile).

Overall, I think this is a good snapshot of ways to evaluate and adjust your leadership style and expectations.

Thanks for sharing!

Jim Lezzer

July 9, 2010 11:58 AM


Every one of these are excellent points - thank you for sharing the insights that you've learned at SciQuest.

I've seen a number of CEOs who saw their role as 'the professor' and managed by 'lecturing'. I've found that there is tremendous relief in simply asking, "Do we know what we don't know?" It gets everyone into the mindset of eliminating variables and thinking instead of reacting.

Thanks for the article.

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