100 leadership lessons from the world's top bosses

Look around corners, be stubborn, employ a shrink (preferably two), do something to make your parents proud... the titans of global business share their wisdom.

by Claire Warren
Last Updated: 15 hours ago

As RBS chairman Howard Davies says below, there is no book or algorithm that will tell you how to lead brilliantly in any given situation, and thank goodness for that. Business would be tremendously dull if there were. 

There is still great value in hearing what captains of industry - current and former - have to say, because generally the most successful people didn't do things by the book. Over the next few months we will publish 100 short perspectives - drawn from Management Today and beyond - that will hopefully challenge the way you think about leadership.


100. 

"Once upon a time a company like ours might have made big strategic changes on an annual or quarterly cycle. Today, strategy is daily." - Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart

99.

"I grew up in Pitsmoor, a slum district in Sheffield. My school wasn't exactly designed to give an elite education, so I left at 15 without any qualifications. I ended up running one of the great corporations of the world. It just proves God has a sense of humour, though I never figured out whether he was pulling my leg or everyone else's." - Sir George Buckley, former chairman and CEO of 3M 

98.

"A chairman’s job is to champion the chief executive, though that doesn’t mean you may not have to fire them if needed. No two are the same, so the way to manage them isn’t the same. You have to be a chameleon." - Marcus Agius, former chairman of Barclays and PA Consulting 

97.

"I'm normally reluctant to offer timeless lessons that bring in business success. Most lessons are contingent. A solution that works once will rarely fit the bill a second time in even slightly different circumstances. But I have found that ranking honesty and plain dealing above other attributes is usually the best way of choosing top executives." - Howard Davies, chairman of RBS

96. 

"The best leaders I've seen in action get results or 'better things' by obsessively focusing on the people they lead and the customers they serve. They cherish their colleagues and their customers. They understand that business is about relationships. They set a clear, purposeful, optimistic context. And they tell the truth." - Dame Cilla Snowball, former group CEO of AMV BBDO

95. 

"I like hiring people who have overcome adversity, because I believe I’ve seen in my own career that perseverance is really important. I will ask them directly: ‘Give me an example of some adverse situation you faced, and what did you do about it, and what did you learn from it?’ The people I’ve hired who have had that ability to describe the situation have always worked out, because they’re able to sort of fall down, dust themselves off, and keep fighting the next day." Nancy McKinstry, CEO of Wolters Kluwer

94. 

"[When you’re doing a merger] you have to be absolutely clear why you’re doing it, and you have to be able to articulate it very clearly for your clients, your suppliers and, most importantly, your employees. Obviously you can’t speak with everyone but you need to be consistent and remember that there’s an emotional strand to the journey, as well as a functional one." - Alastair Aird, global chair of media agency Wavemaker

93. 

"In business, the big prizes are found when you can ask a question that challenges the corporate orthodoxy. In every business I’ve worked in, there’s been a lot of cost and value locked up in things that are deemed to be ‘the way we do things around here.’ So you have to talk to people and ask them, ‘Why do you do that?’" - Andrew Cosslett, CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group

92.

"No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy, if you’re playing a solo game, you’ll always lose out to a team." - Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn

91. 

"People become motivated when you guide them to the source of their own power and when you make heroes out of employees who personify what you want to see in the organisation." - Anita Roddick, co-founder of The Body Shop

90.

"Do I have a management philosophy? Yes. Use common sense." - Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairman and founder of Indian biotech giant Biocon

89.

"If you are a CEO who can’t get to the detail, you’re of no use. Leaders need to see around corners. You need creativity, adaptability and agility." - Mark Wilson, CEO of Aviva

88.

"Do something you are passionate about, do something you love. If you are doing something you are passionate about, you are just naturally going to succeed." - Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors

87.

"When you’re young, you want to be friends with people. But leadership is not a popularity contest. It’s about making some tough decisions, trying to give counsel and trying to make the best decisions for your team." - Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta

86.

"You must be very patient, very persistent. The world isn’t going to shower gold coins on you just because you have a good idea. You’re going to have to work like crazy to bring that idea to the attention of people." - Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines

85.

"Ten minutes, once gone, are gone for good. Divide your life into 10-minute units and sacrifice as few of them as possible in meaningless activity" - Ingvar Kamprad, founder of Ikea

84.

"Never compare your weaknesses to someone else’s strengths. This was advice given to my husband during business school and a mantra we always repeat to each other when we are frustrated about how others are able to make things that are hard for us look easy." - Hayley Barna, co-founder and co-CEO of Birchbox

83. 

"I think it is very important for you to do two things: act on your temporary conviction as if it was a real conviction; and when you realise that you are wrong, correct course very quickly." - Andy Grove, former chairman and CEO of Intel

82.

"The world is changing very fast. Big will not beat small anymore. It will be the fast beating the slow." - Rupert Murdoch, CEO of 21st Century Fox

81.

"All our dreams can come true – if we have the courage to pursue them." - Walt Disney, founder of the Walt Disney Companies

80.

"My advice, having done this a number of times, is to go into an organization and figure out what that company's doing right, and do more of it. You'll eventually get to your to-do list and to your fix-it list, but if you come in and just talk about what's going wrong, you will lose hearts and minds." - Meg Whitman, former CEO of HP

79.

 "Customer service shouldn’t be a department, it should be the entire company." - Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos

78.

"Everyone should focus on the content of his or her job, of course. But work is not the end; it’s a means to an end. You owe it to yourself to open up to broader interests. And in the end, it will be better for your career because you will be more interesting and attractive to others." - Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and former CEO of Goldman Sachs

77.

"I concealed my sexual orientation for four decades in the oil industry. I thought, ‘It’s my private life. It’s no one else’s business.’ But I realise now that, when you’re a leader, you don’t have a private life, you’re public property. If you say it’s OK to be different, you’ll give people the confidence to be themselves." - Lord Browne of Madingley, former CEO of BP and chairman of L1 Energy

76.

"My father told me to find something you enjoy doing, work hard at it and develop a reputation in the field, and then, if you want to start something on your own, go ahead. If you enjoy your work, then it is not work. This goes against current conventional wisdom, which encourages flitting from job to job." - Martin Sorrell, former CEO of WPP Group

75.

"There’s such a formulaic approach to recruitment. A lot is driven by HR sifting people according to criteria that may have been needed in the past. I’ve met a lot of business people who have taken gambles on changing that and it’s proven very successful. It’s not a bad thing for any business to hire people who’ve got something to prove."  - Rod Aldridge, founder and former CEO of Capita

74.

"An A team with C technology wins over a C team with A technology every time. I wish I'd known that earlier." - Hermann Hauser, founder of Acorn Computers

73.

"Companies get into trouble when they get really complacent, when they settle in and say, ‘OK, we’re doing OK now.’ " - Ursula M Burns, CEO of Xerox

72.

"We live in an era of tremendous facts. And the facts are facts. They are also unpleasant facts, which does not decrease their factual percentage one bit. Our job is to understand them, to recognize their presence, to learn if we can what they signify and not to fall into the error of minimising facts because they have a bitter flavour." - Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company.

71.

"In 2002 the Treasury select committee called me a 'sophisticated snake-oil salesman' for my role in the split-caps scandal. I had to lay off hundreds of people. I screwed up and it was my fault. It was the low point of my career but I'm proud that I didn't give up. I got the business back from the mess I got it into... That experience taught me it's too late to get to know newspaper editors and politicians when the shit hits the fan. You have to forge these relationships early and the investment gets paid back in spades. As a CEO you must always be accessible. Never hide." - Martin Gilbert, founder and CEO of Aberdeen Asset Management.

70.

"Always deliver more than expected." - Larry Page, co-founder of Google.

69.

"Never forget that you only have one opportunity to make a first impression—with investors, with customers, with PR, and with marketing." - Natalie Massenet, founder and former CEO of Net-a-Porter.

68.

"Leadership is not about giving energy, it's about unleashing other people's energy." - Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever.

67.

"People who are unable to motivate themselves must be content with mediocrity, no matter how impressive their other talents." - Andrew Carnegie, founder of Carnegie Steel.

66.

"Never define yourself as a product and, in fact, I would augment it; never define yourself by your competition, either. If you live and define yourself by your product or competition, you will lose sight of who your customer is." - Ginni Rometty, Chairman, President and CEO, IBM.

65.

"The time to go into a new business is when it’s badly run by others." - Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group.

64.

"Fearlessness is like a muscle. I know from my own life that the more I exercise it the more natural it becomes to not let my fears run me." - Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post Media Group.

63.

"I believe in following my instincts. Growing up sharing a small house in Glasgow with five brothers gave me a nose for survival and for keeping in with the 'in' crowd. You can't learn that at Harvard." - Martin McCourt, former CEO of Dyson.

62. 

"My best skills are identifying and nurturing talent. The secret of a good CEO is to surround yourself with people who are far brighter than you are." - Peter Marks, former CEO of the Co-operative Group.

61.

"No one wants to follow a pessimist. If your boss is Eeyore, do you want to work with someone like that? Oh, bother." - Bob Iger, CEO of The Walt Disney Company.

60.

"When you're a leader, your job is to have all the questions. You have to be incredibly comfortable looking like the dumbest person in the room. Every conversation you have about a decision, a proposal, or a piece of market information has to be filled with you saying, 'What if?' and 'Why not?' and 'How come?'" - Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric.

59.

"My advice to any leader at any level is to be authentic, build on your own strengths, don’t copy others, and remember to appropriately ‘flex’ your style according to situations." - Peter Simpson, CEO of Anglian Water.

58.

"Embrace what you don't know, especially in the beginning, because what you don’t know can become your greatest asset. It ensures that you will absolutely be doing things different from everybody else." - Sara Blakely, founder of SPANX.

57.

"The value of an idea lies in the using of it." - Thomas Edison, co-founder of General Electric.

56. 

 "You have to be very nimble and very open minded. Your success is going to be very dependent on how you adapt." - Jeremy Stoppelman, CEO of Yelp.

55.

"Experience taught me a few things. One is to listen to your gut, no matter how good something sounds on paper. The second is that you’re generally better off sticking with what you know. And the third is that sometimes your best investments are the ones you don’t make." - Donald Trump, chairman, president, and CEO of The Trump Organization.

54.

"Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence." - Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook.

53.

"If you really look closely, most overnight successes took a long time." - Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

52.

"Top leaders should put themselves in other people’s shoes and listen. If you listen to people, whether they are from the US or Spain, Bangladesh or Brazil, Mexico or Russia, whether they are rich or poor, white or black, male or female, old or young, they make you grow, they keep you innovative, they keep you active." -  Hikmet Ersek, President and CEO, Western Union.

51.

"I have two shrinks - a corporate and a personal one. They are the best business consultants you'll find, because answers are generally found in the head and the heart and not in a spreadsheet." - Julian Metcalfe, The co-founder of Pret a Manger and Itsu.

50.

"I began my professional career in the madhouse that was the Chicago mercantile exchange. I was a runner, the lowest of the low. Starting at the bottom is a great way to learn a business. I still get people joining our senior management to do entry level training with 19-year-olds." - Henry Engelhardt, former CEO of Admiral.

49.

"I saw the movie Spartacus when I was just 10 years old. And from that day on, Kirk Douglas was a hero to me. Thirty years later, I found myself sitting next to him at a charity event. He had just addressed the crowd in a more eloquent, elegant, and passionate way than I had ever heard anyone speak before. I asked him where that passion came from. That is when he said the most important words anyone has ever said to me: "You haven’t learned how to live until you’ve learned how to give." -  Jeffrey Katzenberg, Co-founder, DreamWorks.

48.

"The most important attribute a leader needs to have is to create clarity where none exists. You don’t need a leader when everything is well defined and it’s easy and all you have to do is follow a well-written plan. In an ambiguous situation, where there cannot be complete formation, that’s when leadership matters." - Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft.

47. 

"When you're employing 170,000 people, I think you've got an obligation to be non-political. They shouldn't be influenced by the person they work for." - Andy Bond, former CEO of Asda.

46.

"In times of change, people need to understand the context for the change so they can more fully appreciate why it’s necessary. Change is hard, and so you need to have a clear and powerful vision for others to believe in, and you must communicate that vision constantly and consistently." - Irene Rosenfeld, chairman and CEO of Mondelez International.

45.

"Make every detail perfect and limit the number of details to perfect." - Jack Dorsey, co-founder and CEO of Twitter.

44.

 "I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think that’s how you grow." - Marissa Mayer, former President & CEO of Yahoo.

43.

"It's OK to have your eggs in one basket as long as you control what happens to that basket." - Elon Musk, co-founder and CEO at Tesla.

42.

"Happiness for me is really leading the team and, if possible, leading them to the top - whether in business or in sports or when I play music. Money is just a consequence. I always say to my team, don’t worry too much about profitability. If you do your job well, the profitability will come." - Bernard Arnault, chief executive of LVMH.

41.

"Bosses should welcome dissent - engender it, even. I love criticism. If you look at some of the people who have gone downhill bigtime, it's the ones who would never listen. I don't know every nut and bolt at this firm, so I have to rely on the people that work for me to know." - Peter Hargreaves, co-founder of Hargreaves Lansdown.

40.

"Too many entrepreneurs and business people fall in love with their idea for a new product, or some whiz-bang new technology when they should be focusing on their customers and their needs" - Jay Walker, founding CEO of Priceline.com.

39.

"Avoid openly trying to reform people. Every man knows he is imperfect, but he doesn't want someone else trying to correct his faults. If you want to improve a person, help him embrace a higher working goal - a standard, an ideal - and he will do his own 'making over' far more effectively than you can do it for him." - David Packard, former CEO of Hewlett Packard.

38.

"As a general manager, you feel really accountable. When you become a CEO at a listed company, it's amplified - you feel like your PDR [performance and development review] is being conducted in public every 12 weeks." - Rooney Anand, former CEO of Greene King.

37.

"It’s not about how to get started; it’s about how to get noticed." - Steve Case, co-founder and former CEO of AOL.

36.

"A paycheck and a stock option will buy one kind of loyalty. But all of us like to be told how much somebody appreciates what we do for them. We like to hear it often, and especially when we have done something we’re really proud of. Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise. They’re absolutely free — and worth a fortune." - Sam Walton, founder of Walmart.

35.

"It takes humility to realise that we don’t know everything, not to rest on our laurels and know that we must keep learning and observing. If we don’t, we can be sure some startup will be there to take our place." - Cher Wang, co-founder and CEO of HTC.

34.

"If you’re applauded, worry. Great moves are accompanied by yawns." - Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway. 

33.

"One of the toughest things a leader can do is not be the answer for every problem but instead be a connector to other people." - Tom Monahan, former CEO of CEB.

32.

"Optimism is an underrated quality. The boss’s demeanour affects the mood of everyone else." - Peter Rush, CEO of Formica Group EMEA.

31.

"There’s a shift going on … we’re moving into a world of stakeholders. It’s not just about shareholders. Your employees are stakeholders, so are your customers, your partners, the communities that you’re in, the homeless that are nearby, your public schools. A company like ours can’t be successful in an unsuccessful economy or in an unsuccessful environment or where the school system doesn’t work. We have to take responsibility for all of those things." - Marc Benioff, CEO of SalesForce.


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