100 leadership lessons from the world's top bosses

There's great value in hearing what captains of industry - current and former - have to say.

by Claire Warren
Last Updated: 24 Mar 2020

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.


"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.


"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.


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


"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.


"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.


"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.


"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.


"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.


"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.


"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.


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


 "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.


"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.


"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.


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


"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.


"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.


"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.


"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.


"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.


"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.


"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.


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


 "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.


"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.


"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.


"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.


"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.


"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.


"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.


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


"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.


"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.


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


"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.


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


"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.


"To get something new done you have to be stubborn and focused, to the point that others might find unreasonable." - Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.


"As an organisation we’re very used to reinvention, but it needs to be grass-roots led. We don’t force anyone to do it, we just say here’s an opportunity to learn and people grasp it with both hands." - Scot Gardner, CEO of Cisco UK & Ireland.


“If you ask me, the correlation between employee engagement and customer satisfaction isn’t linear – it’s exponential.” - Olaf Koch, CEO of Metro Group.  


"We can have the best uniform, the best vans, the best receptionists - but if the person who goes out does a bad job it's all pointless." - Charlie Mullins, founder, Pimlico Plumbers.


"The best advice I received was from my ethics professor at Carnegie Mellon University. After spending a semester teaching us about laws and regulations, he told us that in our careers, we should apply a simple test when making important decisions. 'If this were on the front page of the newspaper tomorrow, would your mom and dad be proud of you?'" - Francisco D’Souza, former CEO of Cognizant.


"Remember that failure is an important element to success. The experiences you get in failure are some of the best lessons you can apply in life" - Rick Goings, CEO of home products company Tupperware Brands


"We need to create the workplace of the future. We need to recognise that the corporation as we know it today – pyramids, hierarchies, siloes and traditional budgeting processes – will disappear.” - Alexandre Ricard, chairman and CEO of Pernod Ricard.


“Life is fragile. We’re not guaranteed a tomorrow so give it everything you’ve got” - Tim Cooke, CEO of Apple.


“There’s a perception that if you don’t get to the top fast, you’re a failure. But being a chief executive isn’t the be-all and end-all. It requires a great deal of sacrifice and there’s no work/life balance.” - Sir Stuart Rose, former CEO of M&S.


"At Haier, we have a saying: 'Successful companies move with the times'. There are two reasons we believe this. First, from an external perspective, times change quickly and it’s extremely difficult to stay abreast of them. Second, from an internal perspective, companies lose their entrepreneurial spirit. As soon as a company grows large, its employees learn to work in accordance with the company’s rules.  -Zhang Ruimin, CEO of Haier.


“Climbing involves huge mental focus, commitment, calculation and a sense of the here and now. It helps me at Danone. You can’t lie to yourself when you climb, and you can’t lie to yourself in a job like this one.” - Emmanuel Faber, CEO of Danone.


"When people think too highly of you, you have the responsibility to calm down and be yourself." - Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba.


"There was an overwhelming excitement about the internet during the dotcom bubble. Every business was being valued like it was going to be that one in 100 success story. Now everyone’s excited about Bitcoin or wearable tech or the Internet of Things. That’s good in some ways, but you have to remember not every business will make it." - Martha Lane Fox, co-founder, lastminute.com.


"No one can forecast the economy with certainty, but most of us in business (have) got growth plans that have nothing to do with the actual state of the economy" - Jamie Dimon, the chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase.


“Balance suggests a perfect equilibrium. There is no such thing. That is a false expectation... there are going to be priorities and dimensions of your life, how you integrate them is how you find true happiness” - Denise Morrison, former president and CEO of Campbell Soup.


"The art of leadership is not to spend your time measuring, evaluating. It's all about selecting the person. And if you believe you selected the right person, then you give that person the freedom, the authority, the delegation to innovate and to lead with some very simple measure." - Pierre Nanterme, former CEO of Accenture.


“Don’t take too much advice. Most people who have a lot of advice to give with a few exceptions generalise whatever they did." - Ben Silbermann, founder of Pinterest.


"Don't make the same decision twice. Spend time and thought to make a solid decision the first time so that you don't revisit the issue unnecessarily. If you're too willing to reopen issues, it interferes not only with your execution but also with your motivation to make a decision in the first place." - Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft.


“All you can do is every day, try to solve a problem and make your company better. You can’t worry about it, you can’t panic when you look at the stock market’s decline. You get frozen like a deer in the headlights. All you can do is all you can do.” - Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle Corporation.


“Opportunities are circling all around us and, if you have a good attitude, you recognise them as opportunities and take advantage of them. If don’t have this kind of attitude they will pass you by.” - Pietro Beccari, president of Dior.


“Conventional wisdom suggests that it’s easier to take the path of least resistance by signing up for an easy job, doing it well, and moving on to something bigger. The problem with that theory is that nobody notices when you do an easy job well. It’s far better to challenge yourself by raising your hand for the toughest assignments and work to solve problems that no one else has been able to solve. That’s how you truly become a trusted leader inside an organization." - Indra Nooyi, former chairman and CEO of PepsiCo.


"There are a lot of things that go into creating success. I don’t like to do just the things I like to do. I like to do things that cause the company to succeed. I don’t spend a lot of time doing my favorite activities." – Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Computers.


"Leaders get out in front and stay there by raising the standards by which they judge themselves—and by which they are willing to be judged." – Frederick W. Smith, CEO of FedEx.


"I think as a company, if you can get those two things right — having a clear direction on what you are trying to do and bringing in great people who can execute on the stuff — then you can do pretty well." – Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook.


“What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it. This more than any elaborate party or turreted workstation, is why I love coming to work in the morning” - Ed Catmull, co-founder Pixar.


“When I first opened YO! Sushi I had calls from people all over the world wanting to start franchises or joint ventures. At the time, I couldn't work out why none of the deals happened. I wasted thousands of pounds on it, and, crucially, a lot of my time. We should have told everyone to wait three years until we were grown-ups. But I did a lot of flirting and 'kissed a few girls' along the way and, as we all know, relationships take up a lot of time." - Simon Woodroffe, founder YO! Sushi. 


"Diversification and globalization are the keys to the future" - Fujio Mitarai, CEO of Canon.


"Smarter is always the answer." – Samuel J. Palmisano, former CEO of IBM


"If I wanted to introduce a great culture, the first thing I’d do is read In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters. The number two thing to do is an attitude survey of how miserable your staff are, so you can improve it. Number three is come up with a mission statement you really believe in. Four is a take a microscope and a knife to it, and make sure everything you do is customer and staff-friendly. Five is set up a cost-control group to keep things sensible, and six is set up a customer service group. Number seven is pay a living wage. Some things are non-negotiable. Eight is sign up to the fair tax mark. No business is an island. Number nine is drive an ethical campaign – transparent accounts, overseeing diversity, giving money to charity, looking at executive pay to make sure the multiple is fair. Last but not least is motivate your people.” - Julian Richer, founder Richer Sounds


"My first boss was Anita Roddick, the founder of the BodyShop. I remember her saying to me, 'never dilute your image' and I've always held onto that. "My father called the company REED - it wasn't hugely imaginative but consistently investing in the brand has allowed it to become a household name" - James Reed, chairman and chief executive of REED.

Image credit: Getty Images


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