Nancy Hill: 5 things I've learned about leadership

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It's important to learn from each and every one of your bosses, even the bad ones, writes the president and CEO of 4A's

Campaign US' Annual Morale Survey has once again revealed that leadership is the No. 1 most-cited cause of low employee morale. All this week, as part of our first-ever Leadership Report, we're exploring the issue through the eyes of those who live it every day. 

A lot of people think that you get to be a leader when you're promoted to be one, but true leaders are the ones who are already doing the job, promotion or not. In too many instances, people aren't promoted because they demonstrate the necessary leadership qualities—they're promoted just because that's the norm in terms of role progression. This is how many of us have wound up with "bad" bosses over the years. But even from having a bad boss, there are leadership lessons to be learned; I've taken away just as much from the not-so-good bosses as I have from the good bosses—largely, what not to do. As you're progressing in your career, it's important to learn from whomever you report to. 

Leadership skills can be learned, and they can come naturally. For me, it's always been equal parts of both. I've been in leadership positions in the advertising industry since 1995 and there have been so many lessons I've had to learn along the way. Here are five of the most important:

Watch your reactions because everyone else will, too. In my first role as an agency leader, I remember somebody told me that people would be watching me to see how they should react in any given situation. So I've likened myself to a flight attendant on a plane that never lands. Because if you think about it, whenever there's trouble on a flight—maybe a little bit of turbulence—the first thing you do is look at the flight attendant's face to see if you should be worried. This is one of the biggest lessons I had to learn: People watch me to see how I react. That's not something I inherently understood, but in this knowledge I've found great power to steer an organization into more positive and productive ways of behaving and performing.

Learn the value of a diverse team. One of the greatest gifts a leader can give herself is acceptance of different points of views from different types of people at all levels of an organization. Better yet, don't just accept new ways of thinking—find ways to encourage it. Look for it when you're hiring people. Diverse ways of thinking will always yield a better outcome; this is perhaps especially true in the advertising industry, which has for so long been slanted toward white men—both in terms of the content we create and the organizational structures we have in place.

 Make the hard decisions yourself. Even once you've collected the consensus opinion or your boss's opinion, you still have to be the one to make the final decision. That decision must be based on what's right for the organization. In one of my roles as the head of an office, our largest client decided to put the account up for review. I knew that we didn't have a shot at retaining that business for a host of reasons, and my boss and I had a very large disagreement about whether or not we should pitch to keep the client. I knew that if we tried to retain that piece of business it would completely demoralize our staff. So I stood up to him and told him that we were not going to pitch for it. Ultimately, the client took almost a year to review the pitches it received. During the year, we retained that business and made more money on it that way than we ever would have if we'd had to assemble a grandiose and ultimately failed pitch.

Get to know and respect every single person in your organization. This has really been one of the cornerstones of my entire career—investing in people from the mail room on up is something you must do because you never know whom you're going to need to rely on to get something done. Kindness never stops counting.

This isn't a popularity contest. As a leader, you have to make peace with the fact that you won't necessarily be the most well-liked person on earth all the time. The people who work for you and with you don't have to be your friends, but they need to respect you, and the only way that you can get that respect is to earn it. Respect is earned by making those tough decisions I talked about in my previous point, by sticking with the mission of whatever organization you're running, and by backing your people up when they need to be backed up. Your employees need to know that you've always got their back.

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