Efficiency has been replaced by effectiveness. Organizations have awoken to an era of social business, customer-centricity, and new ideas of what constitutes a leader.

I recently stood up in front of my leadership advice on handscolleagues at SAP and professed my 4 greatest failures . . . and the lessons learned from each, which directly led me to the role I have today – helping to change how a world-class brand rethinks our approach to the new marketplace. What was folly just a few years ago is now being taught for the next generation of leaders at B-schools around the globe and in practice in some very smart organizations.

Failure is an option

Saying you embrace failure is like saying you think weakness is sexy. But many modern organizations are coming around to this idea that failure equates to pushing the envelope and trying unique ideas that were previously suppressed. You may fail 9 of 10 times, but if the 10th is a winner AND you mitigate your previous 9, you have a winning strategy.

HBR blog How I Got My Team to Fail More, by Jason Seiken, you should. As part of the PBS team, they initiated a “fail fast” program to motivate teams out of a stall that was sending PBS hurdling toward the ground below. What they learned: it is easy to say “learn to fail,” but only until it becomes a management objective and people are positively reinforce (if not downright rewarded) for the behavior, change will come slowly.

What was fascinating was the ripple effect of failure across the organization. Once a single group becomes nimble and quick, versus slow and cautious, it creates a tension in the organization. That tension can be the lightning rod for management to help roll our failure across the organization

Lead as a servant

Praised and adopted by leaders like Starbuck’s Chairman Howard Schulz, the idea of leading your teams by serving was made popular by executives like James A. Autry. He penned the best-selling The Servant Leader and several similar business books.

Autry describes leadership against 5 principles:

  1. Be authentic – Be real.
  2. Be vulnerable – Let go of old notions of control and allow other ideas in.
  3. Be accepting – Realize that you can disagree, but everyone can win and no one has to lose if you accept ideas from around you. It isn’t a zero-sum gain.
  4. Be present – Be here and now, not off someplace else.
  5. Be useful – As the boss, you are a resource.

Leadership is then about caring for people and being a resource for them, about creating a community at work, about letting go of ego, and of fostering a spirit in the workplace that lets people do good work.

Just say ‘no” (the Nancy Reagan showdown)

“The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.”
– Tony Blair

We love our Yes Men (and Women), those folks in the office to say yes to anything. They are workhorses, those Yes Men. They take it all on. As a leader, the Yes Man is revered for their ability to take on new projects and their teams just get stuff done. But burnout time in the land Yestopia is quick — too quick. Don’t get me wrong, rolling up your sleeves and helping to get stuff done is critical for the success of any organization. But, blindly taking on all projects is folly.

We have loved the Yes Men for too long. It is time for the grand, resounding N-O into the sacred cloisters of leadership.

Saying no means you effectively prioritize you, your team, your organization, and your company. Saying no challenges blind self-interest in the organization and puts the notion of focusing on the company’s goals and objectives front and center.

You can say no and be respectful. No doesn’t mean jerk. If you were looking for a license to be a jerk, you should wait a few more years until “jerk leadership” becomes popular. Until then, saying no – respectfully – can lead the leader to a healthier discussion on what is right for the organization. Saying yes means everything is a priority.

How many organizations have 26 main priorities? This is a result of just saying yes. How many of them are going to get done? Probably all of them, but poorly. Saying no and addressing a few of them means you have the opportunity to do those few effectively. Beautifully.

And isn’t that a good thing?


My greatest lessons have come from my failures. Want to hear a few of them? You can follow Todd on Twitter @toddmwilms or LinkedIn.