Lessons In Leadership

Love people and use things. Don’t love things and use people.

To be successful in business, you’ve got to know what your customer wants, and you’ve got to give him what he wants. At least, that’s the simplest way to be successful.

The same thing could be said for successful leadership. Instead of studying all the theories or checking out all the fads in leadership, you could simply ASK your “employee-customers” what kind of leadership works for them. And then if at all possible, give them that kind of leadership.

Over the years, I’ve asked my students, my employees, my customers, my audience members, I’ve even asked my family members what kinds of things they need from me. I wanted to know what kinds of leadership would work for them. I wanted to know what would bring out their best.

I used a variety of questions and a host of techniques to get at their answers, but I found one strategy especially useful. I simply asked people to list their three favorite teachers and their three favorite bosses over the years. And I asked them to write down what made those people their favorites.

To say the least, I learned a lot in a very short period of time. And I learned that their answers were amazingly similar. So I would suggest you take heed. My discoveries apply to everyone reading this “Tuesday Tip.”


Even though my research subjects said they may have doubted themselves and their capabilities at one time or another, their favorite teachers and bosses never did. Their favorites encouraged them over and over again, saying in various ways, “You can do it.”

That’s what my favorite high school teacher, Mrs. Virgelee LeDue, did for me. She kept on validating me when I really needed it. At a time when sports, good looks, and popularity ruled, I had none of them. I was just the nice fat kid who never smoked, drank, or dated. I was the good boy, the smart kid, and the nerd, all rolled into one.

But Mrs LeDue got me involved in speech and debate. She encouraged me to enter various speaking contests, and she coached me before, during, and after school — so I could excel. Somehow or other, she knew that competence precedes confidence. And so the better I got, the stronger I felt. Little did she know then, back in 1964, that I would end up making my living as a professional speaker.

As I was writing this “Tuesday Tip,” I thought I should look up Mrs. LeDue. I should tell her how her belief in me changed my life. So I went on line, found her address, and wrote her a letter, never expecting any response. After all, I thought, she might not remember me, and she would be getting up there in years.

I was wrong. She remembered me. She sent me a note, on paper about twice the size of a normal sheet of paper — because as she told me — she was legally blind. She had to use a machine to help her read and write. I was touched by the very effort it must have taken her just to write me back. But I was even more touched by her words. She wrote, “What a surprise and joy to receive your kind note! Like a smile from the past it came into my life. Thank you so much for remembering experiences from so many years ago.”

The lesson is clear, if you want to bring out the best in others, you’ve got to BELIEVE in them. And that goes for your employees, your team members, your customers, your students, and even your spouse and kids.


That would be so true of Dr. Sally Webb. She was my college advisor as well as my communication professor back in 1966. Even before I entered her class, I was scared. I had heard how tough she was. In fact the whole campus was talking about how much work she gave out and how difficult that work was. So I tried to avoid her class and take a class from any other professor that was known to be “easy.” But, of course, their classes were already filled.

Thank goodness those other classes were filled! Dr. Webb not only taught communication, she modeled excellence. She showed me that when a leader insists on excellent work, she usually gets it. And ever since her class, I’ve pursued excellence, and I’ve expected excellence from others. I’ve been unwilling to accept mediocre performance from others when I know there is so much more they could be doing.

On the surface, it may not make much sense. Why would people say that their favorite teachers and their favorite bosses were also the toughest? After all, when we were under their supervision, we may have complained about all the work and their extremely high standards. But in retrospect, those tough teachers and bosses became our favorites because they showed us what it meant to be our “very best.” They brought out potential that we didn’t even know we had.

Some time ago, Bill Honig, the Superintendent of Schools for the State of California, said, “Kids respect courage. They say, ‘If you don’t make me do it, you don’t care about me.’ They squirm; then they do it.” Dr. Webb would concur.

That’s why easy teachers and laissez-faire bosses are never respected. They don’t seem to care enough about their students or their employees to demand excellence. They let their students and employees “get by” with work that’s “good enough.”

Of course it takes a lot of work if you’re going to be a leader who expects excellence. But almost all progress in the history of mankind has come about because of people who demanded excellence.

Are you doing that? Are you modeling excellence? And are you expecting nothing less than excellence from others?


In other words, somehow or other, our favorites make us want to be more like them. That certainly was and is the case with my favorite post-doctoral teacher, Dr. Sidney Simon. I attended several of his classes back in the 1970’s and 80’s, and in every one of them, I saw magic take place. Strangers came into the class, but by the end of class, the people had been transformed into caring, connected team members. They wanted to take on the world and make it a better place.

As a participant in the classes, I was caught up in the magic. Dr. Simon’s mini-lectures, practical strategies, and experiential activities prevented us from merely sitting back and listening in. We were all deeply involved in his classes. We were engaged intellectually, emotionally, and interpersonally.

As a fellow teacher, I immediately knew I wanted to be more like Dr. Simon. I wanted to do more than impart knowledge. I wanted to give people the tools that would change their lives, their families, and their organizations forever. And over the last 20 years as a professional speaker, giving thousands of presentations, there is a part of Dr. Simon’s work in everything I do.

The deeper question is this. As a teacher, manager, leader, or even as a parent, are you inspiring followership? Do the people around you want to be more like you? If not, you’ve got some work to do.

In each case, my three favorites are still alive — in their 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s — and they’re still inspiring my followership. I want to be more like LeDue, Webb, and Simon.

The three of them taught me what it takes to be an effective leader. So I encourage you to look at your favorite teachers and bosses over the years. Look at the lessons they taught you, and look for the lessons they could still be teaching you. You’ll find out what you need to do if you’re going to be an effective leader. And I suspect that your discoveries will be a lot like mine.

Action:  Write down the names of your 3 favorite teachers and your 3 favorite bosses. And then write down what made them your favorites.

Look for commonalities in your listings of characteristics. Pick out one or two of those commonalities that you want to focus on, and let that be your guiding light for the next 21 days. With a little practice each day, you will see definite improvement.