This Is The Most Important Lesson I’ve Ever Learned About Leading A Company

I was 29 the day that my father appointed me General Manager of our family business. I had only been involved with the company for 5 years. I hadn’t graduated from a prestigious business school. I hadn’t ever even worked in a managerial role.

In short, I wasn’t qualified.

And yet, today, I’m the President of BookBaby, the nation’s leading self-publishing services company. I’ve also held management roles in companies such as Mattel and Hasbro. I’m living proof, in other words, that there are some lessons they do not teach you in business school — that, sometimes, the best way to learn is to try, fail, and live.

In this sense, I’ve been learning how to manage, inspire, and lead my whole life. As a kid, my parents encouraged me to be a leader in everything I did, whether in school groups, on athletic teams, or in volunteer organizations.

I learned early on, though, that leadership doesn’t mean simply taking control. It’s not about ordering people around, or making momentous decisions every day. Rather, it’s about leading by example and sharing credit. It’s about exhibiting integrity in every task, large and small. It’s about persisting through adversity — gracefully and with humility.

True leadership is holding yourself accountable to high moral and ethical standards.

Above all, though, this is the real secret:

Leaders who attain success — and maintain it — never stop learning.

This lesson is epitomized by three very different personalities:

  • “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” (Malcolm X)
  • “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” (John Wooden)
  • “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” (President John Kennedy)

Of course, this kind of continuous education starts with teaching yourself the ins and outs of every facet of your business and industry.

But successful leaders are more than just narrow subject matter experts.

Successful leaders seek education everywhere they can.

I’ve written before about the need for CEOs to read books of all kinds.

Reading about subjects outside your day-to-day experience spawns creativity and new ideas that are crucial to leadership. My goal, personally, is to read 25–30 books per year to satisfy my personal need for growth. I try to read a wide range of books, from biographies to novels, political commentaries to science fiction.

Often, though, the best learning comes not from books, but from people.

Seeking advice and counsel is an important priority for CEOs for a number of reasons. Anyone who says they have all the answers is deluded, dishonest, or arrogant. Having person-to-person relationships with employees, customers, and peers is something I try to work on every day.

When I was handed the reins to my family business, I was very aware of just how much I didn’t know about the business. I’ll credit my father with giving me that perspective. When I first joined the company, I spent the entire first year outside the main office. I learned the nuts and bolts of the business, from the orchards to the fruit packing operation. I spent time in our rather primitive IT department and in our customer service room. While I didn’t become a master engineer or serviceman, I learned enough about each cog and sprocket that made up the entire organization to understand how the larger machine worked.

Beyond these key audiences, leaders should cultivate a group of people who know you well, including perhaps a spouse, mentor, or trusted friend. These people will point out blind spots in your thinking — something all leaders, no matter how intelligent, need.

Leaders use what they learn to lead better.

Here’s the truth: new ideas drive progress and change.

As a leader — as the primary driver responsible for progress in your change — it’s your job, then, to embrace and seek new ideas.

If you’re too set in your ways — if you don’t prioritize dynamic education — you won’t see opportunity when it arises. You won’t spot trends that allow market advantages, or problems that could have been solved easily were they caught early.

Perhaps more importantly, though, you yourself won’t improve. The moment we become complacent, in this sense, is the moment we cease to be competitive.

And leadership, ultimately, is about never letting that happen.