Sharing 10 enduring leadership lessons for the next 50 years from my life

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Editor’s note: Veteran investor and entrepreneur Donald Thompson is a regular contributor to WRAL TechWire, writing about leadership, equality and other significant business issues. His columns are published on Wednesdays.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Last week I turned fifty, a milestone birthday for sure. This week to celebrate, I want to share the top ten leadership lessons I’ve learned throughout my life. Many of these lessons came from my parents, although I may not have realized what they were teaching me at the time. Others came from my coaches, teachers, business mentors, employees, or my own fantastic failures.  

Big-number birthdays like this have an interesting effect on our minds. Crossing into a new decade usually activates our natural tendency to look back and forward at the same time.  Some people feel sad, sentimental, energized, regretful, excited or revitalized. For me, reflecting on the past fifty years is a way to prepare for optimal success, purpose, productivity, and happiness in the next fifty. 

As another form of reflection, I’ve also been writing a book that shares these leadership lessons through personal stories. Part autobiography, part leadership guide, Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success will be released in 2022. To be notified of pre order, sign up for my newsletter, and I’ll keep you in the loop. In the meantime, here are some of the most enduring lessons I have learned in my five decades of life and nearly three decades of leadership in business. 

  • CONTINUOUS LEARNING IS KEY TO SUCCESS

Whether you’re climbing the corporate ladder, chasing a career change or working as a C-suite executive, if you don’t adapt and grow both personally and professionally, you’re going to lose to someone who will. Someone else is going to get that promotion, or your competitor — who knows how to learn, adapt, and innovate — is going to get that client’s business. For instance, we know that people want to work for companies that are inclusive and diverse. If you’re not willing to participate in that discussion, you’re putting a timestamp on your relevancy. Commit yourself to continuous learning by actively and relentlessly pursuing information, challenges and opportunities for development. I call this “competitive learning.” In the next fifty years, we cannot know which skills will make the critical difference to success, so we must remain continually in search of new and stronger ideas. 

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  • WHEN SOMETHING GOES WRONG, FIX IT AND MOVE ON

Do it quickly, and do it with a healthy dose of humility. Accepting and acknowledging your mistakes doesn’t mean you’re weak or inconsistent. It means you’re strong and human. When you admit what you don’t know, you open the door for continued learning, and you build trust within your team by letting people see you as a whole person, not a one-dimensional character.

  • OBSTACLES ARE OPPORTUNITIES TO DEMONSTRATE YOUR EXCELLENCE 

Growing up on the football field, I learned early how to get knocked down and get back up. If people underestimate you or things fall apart, use those moments as a chance to prove what you’re really capable of. 

  • BIG DREAMS MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE

Name your goals, tell everyone what you’re after and let people hold you accountable for success. When you know exactly what you’re chasing, it’s easier to put the work in because you know the pay-off is going to be so much greater than the pain. 

  • MANAGING ANYONE MEANS LOOKING OUT FOR THEIR SELF-INTEREST 

People don’t do things just because they’re “right.” They do things that serve their own self-interest. That may sound cynical at first, but that’s not how I mean it. Instead, look at it this way. “Self-interest” doesn’t only mean money or influence. In fact, it more often means safety, love, community, and a sense of belonging. Those are all human needs; they’re in our self-interest. This principle applies when you’re leading a team and also when you’re “managing up” to your supervisor. If you want to keep a valuable employee, you have to manage their ability to create a comfortable work-life blend. At the same time, by taking some weight off of your manager, you become infinitely more valuable because you act in their best interest. 

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  • AS A LEADER, PERSONAL SUCCESS MEANS LITTLE IF YOUR TEAM DOESN’T GET THE WIN 

When I was in middle school, I was an all-star baseball player. One day, I came home after practice and was telling my dad about all the great plays I’d made on the field. “Two home runs in one game! And I struck out four people in two innings!” “Ok, but how did the team do?” he asked. “We lost,” I shrugged, confused about why he wasn’t more impressed. “Don, what difference does it make how well you did if your team lost?” The lesson my dad was teaching me that day has proven to be true about a hundred times since. Developing a winning standard means working hard and leading your team, not just coasting through life as a solo player.

  • COLLABORATION IS A SUPERPOWER 

It takes humility and confidence to work as part of a team, but the victories are greater when we do. Think about teamwork as a choir or a band. It’s nice to watch one person crank out a solo every once in a while, but you’ll never get to hear the range and depth of music that you would hear from a group. A team is always stronger than an individual because people can balance and enhance each other’s strengths for better innovation, problem solving and decision making. Learning to nurture collaboration is a critical skill in your leadership toolbox.

  • IN BUSINESS, THERE IS RARELY EVER ONE RIGHT ANSWER

There are only options that need to be tested. To be ruthlessly efficient with your time, you have to get comfortable with measured risk. Don’t let uncertainty limit your progress. If you’re 70-80% sure something might work, stop debating it, and go test it in the market. Instead of sitting through a two-hour meeting about the pros and cons of one idea, skip the conversion, ask for feedback from potential stakeholders, and use what you learn to make a final decision. 

  • IF YOU WANT TO GROW FAST, YOU HAVE TO FOCUS

In business and your personal life, if you want to nurture a fast-growth environment, you have to decide where you are going, cut out the noise and concentrate on the goal. Fast growth requires sacrifice, intention and attention. Eliminate the things that are distracting you and you will increase your ability to scale. 

  • THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT YOU CAN GIVE SOMEONE IS A HIGH EXPECTATION FOR SUCCESS

This is one of my top four concepts to drive leadership growth. By insisting on high standards for yourself and your team, you show people that you believe in their capacities and you motivate them to rise and meet those expectations. 

These ten principles define my acquired leadership style, and I know they will guide me through my next fifty years. Some of them were easier to learn than others, and some of them I had to learn multiple times before the lesson really sank in. Yet each one has helped me to structure my life so I can both achieve success and lead others to be highly successful. If you have life lessons that you’re eager to share, I’d love to hear those too. Reach out to me on LinkedIn and at donaldthompson.com

About the Author

Donald Thompson is an entrepreneur, public speaker, author, podcaster, Certified Diversity Executive (CDE) and executive coach. With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, he is a thought leader on employee-focused cultures, goal achievement, influencing organization-wide change and driving exponential growth. He is also co-founder and CEO of The Diversity Movement, a results-oriented, data-driven strategic partner for organization-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Donald serves as a board member for several organizations in marketing, healthcare, banking, technology and sports. His autobiography, “Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Journey to Success,” launches this fall. Connect with Donald on LinkedIn and at donaldthompson.com

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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.