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: 8 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.


"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


"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 


"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 


"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


"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


"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


"[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


"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


"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


"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


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


"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


"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


"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


"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


"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


"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


"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


"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


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


"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


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


"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


"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


"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


"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


"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


"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


"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.


"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.


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


"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.


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


Image credit: Getty Images


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