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5 Most Helpful Leadership Lessons I've Received

Everyone shares advice, but these have had the biggest impact.

Hey folks 👋, I'm Kenneth Burke. #BurkeBits is where I share stories, data, and frameworks to help you become a better marketer. Subscribe for free to level-up.

I’m not a wise old sage who’s been there, done that, and has a story for everything (maybe one day). But whether it’s been with a club, a board, or a department, I’ve been in many positions of leadership.

I’ve struggled through several of those positions, and these are the 5 leaderships lessons I’ve been taught that have been the most helpful for me (and for the folks I serve).

1. Find vignettes of time.

Some years ago I was in a young professionals mentoring program. The mentor I was paired with was former Chattanooga Mayor and Senator from Tennessee, Bob Corker.

He wouldn’t remember me from Adam, but I got to learn from him in a group setting and then meet with him one-on-one in his office.

A question I asked him—something I was struggling with at the time—was “How do you build relationships with your employees without trying to be their friends?”

He stood up, walked across the room, and picked up a book off the coffee table.

It was a photo album his staffers had put together and gifted him when he left the Senate, and it was filled with personal notes about various moments where he’d made a positive impact on them.

He kept repeating the phrase “find vignettes of time” to ask employees how they’re doing, or about one of their interests, or to say you thought about them. Over time, those vignettes become a professional relationship, often with mutual respect, and often creating a dynamic that leads to better performance from both of you.

So I started doing that, and he was right. It helped tremendously.

2. Most problems aren’t problems.

As a leader, everything comes from you and back to you.

When everything is a shimmering success, this is wonderful. You get all the credit! When anything is less than ideal, it’s a terror. You get all the blame, and it becomes your responsibility to fix.

But you can’t do everything.

In order to prioritize fixing those problems, you have to deprioritize something else, and that can be costly. It also turns out you can often still hit your goals while those problems persist.

Every employee doesn’t have to like the next. Every process doesn’t have to be streamlined. Every dollar spent doesn’t have to create a direct return. Every problem is not actually a problem.

How can you tell whether something really is a problem, and is worth the time and effort to fix? There are 3 good questions to ask:

  • Does this problem keep us from hitting our #1 goal?

  • Will it ruin our reputation or the customer experience?

  • Are we going to make more money (or earn more subscribers, or whatever your key metric is) by solving this problem than by letting it continue?

Turns out, the answers are usually “no.” So I let the fires burn, and things have been just fine. In fact, we’ve made better progress, and stress is way down.

Note: If we’ve already accomplished our goals or if I have some downtime in between projects, I’ll squeeze in some extra productivity by resolving one of those non-problems.

3. Act like a hall-of-famer.

I was maybe 14 years old when my dad took me along with him to a tax conference in Orlando (he’s a CPA), so I could see the legendary college football coach and ESPN commentator Lou Holtz give the keynote.

I remember he performed a magic trick at the end of his talk. And then he hung around to sign autographs.

There’s a good lesson in how I got his autograph, too, but I’ll save that for another time. He wrote a quick note on a piece of hotel stationary that said:

Kenneth, play and live like a champion today.

- Lou Holtz

I framed it, and still have it on a shelf in my home office.

13 years later, I was in an annual performance review, and I asked about where I could improve. My boss said something like this:

“You’ve had a good year, but I think about it like football. A champion has a great year, a hall-of-famer has a great career. If you want to have a great career, you’ve got to keep performing at a high level and keep improving. Don’t get complacent.”

So that’s what I’ve done. It’s been a good frame of reference to keep pushing, especially when I get bogged down in the day-to-day, as we all sometimes do.

4. It’s tough to overcommunicate.

This applies in 3 contexts: repeating, explaining, and updating.

First, repeating. Most people aren’t going to remember something the first time you say it. Depending on the platform through which you communicate, they may not even see it.

Most people won’t remember the second time you say it, either. By the third, though, it may just be beginning to stick.

Usually, when you’re sick of saying it, others are just beginning to listen. So repeat yourself often—your core message, top goals, offers to help, core values, your motivation, whatever it is. Only then will others begin taking it to heart.

Second, explaining. Whether you’re communicating down or communicating up, it’s often better to share too much than too little. People naturally have tons of questions, are sometimes mistrusting, and nearly always need help connecting the dots.

So explain what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and what has happened as a result of those efforts. An important mini-lesson here is that you always have to defend your work (to someone), and this is often how you’ll do it.

Third, updating. Keep people in the loop. Communicate whenever anything changes—good, bad, or neutral—or even if nothing changes but it’s been awhile.

I’ve had plenty of people ask me for updates, but I’ve never had someone get mad at me for sharing one. Updates tend to help everyone move farther faster together.

5. Be prepared.

I’m an Eagle Scout. Every time I put on that uniform—at least once a week for 4 years—I saw the phrase “Be prepared” stitched on my shirt. It’s the Scout motto, and we repeated it constantly. It was also engrained in us through word and action, and now it’s a staple of my life.

I was fortunate to be led by a group of Scoutmasters (dads of our troop) who were all good leaders and strong characters. In a way, they were teaching us how to succeed—how to develop skills to perform exceptionally, how to think ahead, how to minimize risks and take full advantage of opportunities.

They taught us how to think critically and clearly, and how to act in times of need. Really, that’s the same thing that Harvard MBA students pay $200,000 for.

And so, for years and years, I’ve asked myself (and my team) “What if this happens, what are we going to do about it? How will we do this well?”

It’s tough to think of and prepare for every possibility, but you can at least get ahead of most. Just keep asking “What if?” and “How will?” and you’ll get there.

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Have questions about this topic or something you’re working on? Ask away! I’m an open book and happy to help.