Studying the biographies of great leaders is often an intimidating experience. As you skim the resumes of your favorite business heroes and read the obituaries of your much-loved political leader you think to yourself, “That can never be me.”
But that’s far from the truth. Most leaders had a pretty harrowing journey to the top and wouldn’t have achieved their success without relying on pragmatic, micro-skills that anybody can learn.
Follows are a few specific skills used by history’s greatest leaders that anyone can master:
1. Don’t let the judgment of others get in your way
Henry Ford was described by those who knew him as a “rather shiftless farmboy-turned mechanic who, at the age of thirty, was spending most of nights tinkering in a back room or laughing and joking with boys.”
Not high praise.
More damning was Henry’s father. One observer wrote, “I could see that old Mr. Ford was ashamed of a grown-up man like Henry fussing over a little thing like a quadricycle.”
Henry knew that his father didn’t approve and was “heartbroken” about it. However, that didn’t stop him from fussing with his “quadricycle.”
Leaders need to dismiss criticisms. The path to success is often stop-and-go due to naysayers and doubters. Focus and persistence pays off.
2. Talk to everyone
Sam Walton writes in his biography, “In college…I would always speak to the person coming towards me. If I knew them, I would call them by name, but even if I didn’t I would still speak them.”
This positive, happy-go-lucky attitude made him recognizable to everyone on campus. Sure, he might of made some people think twice about his over-eagerness, but at least they knew who he was.
Walton’s talk-to-everyone policy paid off. “I was elected president of the senior men’s honor society,” Walton writes, “and officer in my fraternity, and president of the senior class.”
Like Walton, leaders should try to make it habit to talk to everyone they can. Some conversations may be unprofitable, but the conversational practice can help leaders earn respect from customers, loan officers, and clients.
3. Take every job seriously
In 1849 Andrew Carnegie became a telegraph messenger. By all accounts it was a dull, boring job.
However, Carnegie, unlike the droves of other young men who crowded the industry, didn’t think the gig was all that bad. He mastered the trade and got a raise. Over time he learned who each mover-and-shaker in Pittsburgh’s business community was since he helped send their messages via telegram.
Carnegie became so good at the art of telegraphing he could write down messages by ear rather than by studying sheets of transcribed Morse code.
When the Pennsylvania Railroad needed a new telegraph office manager—Carnegie, although young, was the only logical choice.
Carnegie was now on the ground floor of America’s fastest growing industry. He proved himself capable and, of course, the rest is history.
Leaders should handle all assignments, projects, and duties with respect and interest. A little application can go a long way.
4. It’s OK to be scared of risk
George Eastman didn’t quit his job at the Rochester Savings Bank when he started tinkering around with cameras, film, and dry plates. He stuck to his banking duties and only played with his camera equipment on the weekends and evenings. He may have remained at the bank longer while he experimented with his camera gear if it weren’t for the bank’s cruel management. They didn’t offer Eastman a promotion and instead gave it to a son of one of the bank managers. Furious, Eastman quit and started his small business, which grew into Eastman Kodak.
Eastman felt no rush to jump into business and didn’t enjoy the risks of entrepreneurship. He patiently developed products and inventions in his spare time and only started his own company only after being forced into unemployment.
Leaders need not be mavericks and renegades. They can wait it out for the right moment.
5. You don’t have to be a stick in the mud
Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines, used humor to market his company, talk to his customers, and communicate with his staff.
Kelleher displayed his natural good humor when another company sued Southwest over a trademarked slogan. Kelleher took the legal battle into his own hands and challenged the CEO of the suing company to an arm-wrestling match. Kelleher won.
The relaxed, quirky atmosphere helped make Southwest a company people could relate to and trust. Kelleher’s easy ways and charm helped create an environment where it was fun to work.
But Kelleher was always the consummate professional. He comments, “What really adds up to professionalism is being very good at what you do in a very modest way.” Kelleher knew that he could have a good time just as long as the work got done.
Leaders don’t always need to be cold, reserved figures. They can be relatable and can enjoy a good time.
6. Burst the knowledge bubble
During WWII Prime Minister Winston Churchill failed to adequately defend Singapore, figuring that the minimal defenses stationed there were enough and that the Japanese forces in the Pacific theater wouldn’t dare attack what was considered an impregnable island.
However, Churchill and his staffers guessed wrong. Japanese forces descended on the island on Feb. 15th, 1942 and easily captured “60,000 Imperial troops in Singapore – 16,000 British, 14,000 Australian and 32,000 Indian soldiers.” Not to mention resources and equipment.
Churchill accepted defeat and admitted he “ought to have known” about the danger. He asked four questions of his staff to figure out how he could have been so horribly informed. They were: “Why didn’t I know, why didn’t my advisers know, why wasn’t I told, why didn’t I ask?”
The disaster taught Churchill to be critical of what he knew and what he was told. Moreover, he forced himself to break out of his knowledge bubble by asking himself about his lack of inquisitiveness. These invaluable questions help Churchill navigate the rest of the war with more conviction and confidence.
Individuals must actively break their knowledge bubble and make sure they are looking beyond what they are told. Leaders who look beyond what they are told and ask more probing, deeper questions will have a leg up on the competition.