5 Leadership Lessons I've Learned The Hard Way

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

As a kid, I thought that being a leader was easy. It was about ensuring that my friends followed what I told them to do on every occasion. Whether on the football field, basketball court, playground park, or other school activities.

However, as I am getting older, especially after I entered the life phase as a professional, I faced many difficult situations where sometimes I doubt my leadership skill and capability. What once seemed a natural ability to lead suddenly became a disastrous trait that ended with many wrong decisions and regrets.

Still, I have learned countless valuable things from all those mistakes and uncomfortable situations, but here are five leadership lessons that I have learned the hard way, especially in the past ten years:

Understanding my leadership style should have been my number one priority. Realizing that I am a macro manager who emphasizes a democratic and participative leadership style should have been the foundation of my self-awareness. Failing to recognize this in the first place brought me to the disaster of hiring the wrong people into my team, which resulted in a high turnover and low morale in the group.

Hiring the right people to fit in with my leadership style is the key to building a solid team. After I clearly understand my leadership style, it is practically easier for me to define what kind of people could flourish under my direct supervision. Those are individuals with unique personalities, but they have the same standard: a high level of accountability, willingness to learn new things, and comfortability to work in a demanding, fast-paced, and constantly changing work environment (in a positive way).

Acting as a jerk is necessary (sometimes)—no more Mr. Nice Guy for those low performers. Regular performance discussions and feedback sessions would address what would be required to change and what they should improve. If the laid-back approach did not work, it is entirely OK for me to become a jerk leader to ensure those low performers got the message -- loud and clear.

Trying to please everybody is not part of a leader's responsibility. No matter how hard I tried to make a thoughtful and considerate decision based on their situation, I would never please everybody on my team. Bill Cosby said it best, "I do not know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody." So rather than spending my energy to make everybody happy, I should have focused more of my time and effort on making a decision that would benefit the company in the long term.

The best leadership principle was taught by Ki Hajar Dewantara more than 70 years ago. The leading Indonesian independence movement activist, politician, and pioneer of education for native Indonesians in Dutch colonial times, Ki Hajar Dewantara was well known for his famous proverb in the Javanese language, "Ing ngarso sung tulodo, ing madyo mangun karso, tut wuri handayani." It translates, "(for those) in front should set an example, (for those) in the middle should raise the spirit, and (for those) behind should give encouragement." -- even though Indonesian people used the proverb in the educational context, it is still valid today to describe a simple principle that I believe in the true essence of being a leader.

We can learn everything we need to know in theory about leadership, but all those arguments would be useless if we do not know how to implement them in real life.

Everyone can teach leadership, but on the other hand, I also believe that leadership is far better learned through various experiences in our working lives.

We were learning by doing, mostly by trial and error. Do not be afraid to make mistakes as long as we learn from past mistakes and ensure those mistakes will not happen again.

That long, bumpy, and probably painful process will mold us as better leaders in the future. After all, a smooth sea will never make a skilled sailor, or in this case, a capable leader.

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