Leadership lessons you don’t learn in school, part one

Grade schools and postsecondary educational institutions play an important role in preparing people to go out and succeed in the “real world.” Such an assertion is virtually indisputable – but no matter the industry students join when they leave school and enter the working world, they’ll probably realize there are some things that simply can’t be taught in the classroom. Rather, these aspects must be learned in the field and on the job.

Some aspects of leadership must be learned in the field and on the job.”

Leadership is no exception in this regard, asserted Roy Osing, former executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Canadian telecommunications titan TELUS, in a recent piece for The Globe and Mail.

“Standout leadership is not discovered in any textbook,” wrote Osing, who has more than 33 years of leadership experience under his belt and currently serves as the president and CEO of Brilliance for Business, an organization he founded to help people improve their personal and business performance. “It is born in the trenches where results are achieved, conflict occurs, people engage and pain is experienced. Every day is different. Each day teaches you something new.”

Given the fact that Osing’s leadership career has spanned more than 12,000 days, it’s safe to assume he learned literally thousands of lessons during his tenure. The former TELUS EVP managed to whittle those down to five particularly important takeaways.

There is no all-encompassing ‘right’ answer

In school, the system of checkmarks and letter grades leaves many students believing that there is one – and only one – right answer to every problem. That may be the case when it comes to math equations or dates of important events in history, but with regard to corporate leadership, the answers are not as black and white.

“In business … workable and remarkable solutions are often inelegant and messy,” Osing noted. “Plan A rarely works.”

In a 2013 blog post, Robert Bruner, dean of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, expanded on the idea of the “messiness” to which Osing referred.

“Messes present very murky decision problems,” Bruner acknowledged. “As I have told thousands of students over the years, ‘There are no single right answers in business – but there are lots and lots of wrong ones.'”

When it comes to leadership, there is more than one right answer.
When making leadership decisions, there is more than one right answer.

In short, leaders looking for the Holy Grail of business decision-making won’t find it because it simply doesn’t exist. This is why flexibility is considered a crucial characteristic of a modern leader.

“An inflexible mind jumps to conclusions before gathering all of the facts,” asserted business and leadership expert Peter Economy in a December 2014 article for Inc. “Many of us have made the mistake of forming an opinion about someone before he or she finished speaking, only to find out later that our opinion was way off. Flexibility allows us to set our personal beliefs and prejudices aside and truly observe and listen to varying points of view – opening our eyes to new ways of viewing the world around us. Those with flexibility tend to be the happiest and most successful in life and at work.”

For leaders, failure can be just as valuable as success.”

Failure is often more valuable than success

Referring back to the idea of right and wrong answers, in school, success – which takes the form of high letter grades and lots of checkmarks – is the ultimate goal. Conversely, failure is presented as something negative that should be avoided at all costs. However, the black-and-white nature of those definitions changes once professionals find themselves at the helm of an organization. Although leaders will still strive for success, they should acknowledge that failure can be just as valuable, if not more so.

“Success encourages you to stay with the playbook that has worked so far and doesn’t force you to deviate. Losing, on the other hand, forces you to get out of your comfort zone, to try a different approach and create a new box to play in,” Osing wrote. “When you lose, study your failure from every possible angle. Your ‘post-loss analysis’ will guide you effectively as you encounter future situations.”

Earlier this year, we examined the idea of applying the Japanese practice of kintsugi – the art of mending broken tea cups and other pottery with gold – in a corporate setting.

“Instead of treating the break as something to hide, tea masters treat the repair with reverence, as part of the object’s history,” explained Dr. Tammy Lenski in an article for Mediate.com. “The tea masters understood that by repairing the broken bowl with the distinct beauty of radiant gold, they could create an alternative to ‘good as new’ and instead employ a ‘better than new’ aesthetic. They understood that a conspicuous, artful repair actually adds value.”

This perspective refutes the classroom notion that failure is bad and success is good. Instead, it introduces the idea that the former is valuable in its own right – and, indeed, perhaps even more so than the latter.

In part two, we delve into three more leadership lessons presented by Osing.

About Caldwell Partners

Caldwell Partners is a leading international provider of executive search and has been for more than 40 years. As one of the world’s most trusted advisors in executive search, the firm has a sterling reputation built on successful searches for boards, chief and senior executives, and selected functional experts. With offices and partners across North America and in London, the firm takes pride in delivering an unmatched level of service and expertise to its clients.

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