John Boiler: 5 things I've learned about leadership

Self-awareness is the No. 1 superpower of great leaders, writes the founder and CEO of 72andSunny.

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.

Listen, I’m by no means an expert, but as you’ll see in lesson No. 2 below, I’ve had more than my fair share of failures to learn from on the road to understanding good leadership. And that’s what it’s mostly about for me. When you either achieve or are thrust into a position of leadership, the most beneficial mindset to have is that of a learner. Change is the only real constant in our business and since the humans around us are constantly evolving and growing, if you have a fixed mindset, you’re more likely to be led (out of the business) than to lead anyone or anything.

So I’ve learned a few things from folks who were either way smarter than me or way more accomplished at failing which I’m now happy to share…

Develop an eye for opportunity. When I started in the business as a junior art director, I used to love the unloved briefs. The projects that seemed too small and inconsequential to matter to a client or accomplished creative seemed to brim with potential to me. The more obscure or unclear the brief, the better, for the very reason that the outcome had not been over defined. So we’d get single-page ads in wrestling magazines, or table tents and newspaper tip-ins, we’d try to do something exceptional. And have room to swing bigger. A year later, my partner Glenn and I had won more One Show Pencils than anyone in the company.

So we learned a counterintuitive way to spot opportunity:

To look for the gap and shoot at it—whether it’s taking the unloved brief, trying to make a fifth-place soccer shoe company famous, taking on the smartphone leader or finding a place in a crowded agency market to stake out as your own. Opportunity is often found in the shadow of expected greatness.

Fail faster. Yup, it’s a cliche for a reason. To me, it just means play loose and know you’ll make mistakes. Forgive yourself and learn from the f-ups, and charge on with the same naive overconfidence that got you into the lofty example of the Peter Principle you currently inhabit. You’ll (usually) live to less-clumsily fight another day.

Read: Lisa Donohue on 5 things I've learned about leadership

No decision is perfect or permanent. So make it anyway. Related to the above, but different. You see and hear this in the creative business all the time: "Great works of art are never completed, only abandoned" or "Progress is the enemy of perfection." Well, it’s true, so loosen up and commit to the best solution you see before you in the time allowed and build from there. Fretting decisions endlessly stalls progress, freezes human development and is just plain boring and tedious. Make the damn decision already. Go!

Know what’s up with you. Self-awareness is the No. 1 superpower of great leaders I’ve known. They know why they are doing what they’re doing. They are aware of their values, speak from them often and constantly use them to inform even the smallest decisions. They know where they have moments of genius, and know where they are incompetent. And they organize their lives, support and duties to reflect where they can make most impact. No leader is perfect, but some don’t even know where they are good. And the only way to find out is to get an evaluation. I’m personally suspect of a leader who’s disinterested in getting or hearing an objective view of what they’re doing great and terrible and being open to making change for the sake of the organization.

So to the list of leadership virtues like vision, talent, patience, loyalty, etc., I would add self-awareness. Actually, I’d probably start with it.

Read: JWT's Tamara Ingram on leadership in a time of crisis

Have a bias to action. Skip the Ivory Tower vision BS and put ideas into action to test them. I see leaders fail when they espouse a hypothetical vision that will face a million real world obstacles that aren’t accounted for. And the only way to see if a solution works is to try it in a safe environment. So the leaders I admire get their hands dirty. Write the deck, try the edit and make the first mark on an empty canvas.

There are probably a million more leadership tips that are better than these and higher in order, but following my own advice, I just threw the first five that came to mind on the page because I saw the opportunity, was self-aware enough to know it was all wrong, but went ahead and did it anyway.


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