In 2016 I attended an event that allowed me to hear, for the first time in person, from business writer Tom Peters. My first impression was that he’s reached an age where he really doesn’t care about what people think of him – he just tells it like he sees it, which is refreshing. His manner is a bit gruff and blunt, but his belief systems align with mine. He’s a capitalist that is also a staunch supporter of a diverse management team, treating all employees with respect, and fairly compensating workers.

The conference was on leadership so that was the focus of his presentation. Unlike other presenters, he didn’t really hone in on a particular idea. His presentation was more a tapestry of lessons learned from many years of studying and writing about what makes some businesses successful while others fail. Here are some of the gems he shared:

  • Leadership isn’t some grand thing; it’s the various minutes of actions and decisions, one at a time.
  • Excellence isn’t a long-term endeavour. It’s the next five minutes, or it won’t happen within the next twenty years.
  • The most difficult thing for a leader to do is to stay in touch. Some leaders are so busy leading, they never have time to speak to those they are leading. Pretty soon, your decisions are complete guesswork.
  • Daniel Goldman said that the higher up a leader went, the less accurate their self-assessment. By way of example, Peters described witnessing a meeting in which managers were making reports to a CEO. When Peters later asked the CEO how often he had interrupted a particular presenter, the CEO suggested it was about three times. Peters had counted: it was actually 25 times. This is one of the reasons great leaders surround themselves with people who will be honest with them.
  • The mark of a good leader is the development of great relationships with those they lead. Improving relationships doesn’t have a technical answer…you don’t need Oracle or SAP. You need people to go to lunch together.
  • Use acknowledgement to lead effectively. William James said that the deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated. Say “thank you”. Say “I’m sorry”. Choose a leadership style that is inclusive and inquisitive rather than dictatorial. Try asking staff, “What do you think?” It shows they matter, and that you value their opinion. Which is appropriate, incidentally, because they are the ones actually doing the work.
  • More on “sorry” because it’s critical. Often, the problem isn’t the problem. It’s the response to the problem that ends up being the problem. Everyone messes up at some point. That’s human. It’s how we rebound from the mistake (or misperception) that makes the real difference. Put your people first. Treat employees like customers. Few businesses do this. Consider the Army, which has 3 or 4 star generals as head of training, yet most companies put a mid-level manager as head of HR. Take management of your staff more seriously. Go bananas over training…it pays.
  • Business has to give people enriching, rewarding lives or it’s not worth doing it. Ensure jobs have substance, some diversity, “own” an element within the business about which they can feel pride. That could be a division of the company, or the mailroom.
  • The things you remember most in your career are the people who helped you to grow. He’s never seen a tombstone that quoted someone’s net worth. The award-winning director, Robert Altman, said his job was to help actors to become more than they’ve dreamed they can be.

Peters ended with a suggestion that organizations re-find the fire within them to make a difference in their marketplace. We all spend far too much time at work for it to be of little value to ourselves or the world around us. He urged everyone in the room to strive to be the best at what they do. After all, as retailer George Whalin said, it’s the only market that’s not crowded.