Lessons from Leaders I Admire


By Torod B. Neptune

Great leadership is one of those things that can be difficult to define, but you know it when you experience it yourself. That’s one of the reasons why it is so valuable for aspiring leaders to have mentor figures who can teach them and help them grow. I’ve been lucky enough to have some excellent mentors over the years, who’ve taught me many valuable lessons that I’ve been able to apply to my own ventures. With a new generation of young leaders emerging, I want to look back on some of the lessons I’ve learned from leaders I’ve worked with, so that I can more effectively provide guidance and support as a mentor myself.

What I’ve Learned From Past Leaders

When I look back on my career, there are two figures who had a major impact on me and my approach to leadership. The first was a CEO that I worked for early on in my career, who encouraged me to expand my horizons beyond the technical functions of my department. Up until that point, I’d largely stuck to strict definitions of what my department’s function was, but he made me realize that this was limiting both for myself and those I worked with. There are very few things in business that neatly fit within a single department’s purview, so he suggested that I wear the “business operations” hat first and the “functional” hat second. It made me a more effective leader and ensured I was a better collaborator.

The second person who had a big impact on me was Dan Mead, the now retired former CEO of Verizon Wireless. If there’s one strong piece of advice he gave me that has stuck with me over the years it’s this: “Never take things personally.” It might seem obvious, but we often underestimate how much it can cost us when we take things too seriously. Not only do we waste a lot of valuable time and energy ruminating on a disagreement, but it can also cloud our ability to collaborate, learn, and grow from the experience.

I’ve authored many strategic business plans that I thought were phenomenal, but I’ve had colleagues who disagreed. Whether my colleagues are correct or not, if I take these criticisms personally,  it would prevent me from seeing their potential value, which means I can’t make the improvements necessary for the strategy to be truly successful. It’s exponentially harder to hear anyone clearly when you are unable to remove your ego from the situation. Dan taught me that and I’ve found a great deal of success because of it.

How Can We Support Future Leaders? 

When I look at the next generation of young leaders, I want to offer the types of insights that leaders I’ve worked with helped to instill in me. Something I’ve come to realize is that when you’re in the early stages of your career, it can be hard  to wear the business operations hat first and the functional hat second. It’s good advice, but it’s something that’s more true after you’ve had some more experience and are approaching the C-Suite. Early on, it may actually be more advantageous to focus on your function, but as you work your way up the ladder, you become a much more valuable contributor to the organization when you aren’t just thinking about your agenda, but the organization’s agenda.

Additionally, I would stress to young leaders the value of patience. We live in a society that increasingly promotes instant-gratification, and if you aren’t careful, it’s easy to let this inhibit your ability to set and attain long-term goals. This also means recognizing that sometimes your greatest accomplishments won’t be apparent until later. In the afterword to his book “The Road Ahead,” Bill Gates claimed that “People often overestimate what will happen in the next two years and underestimate what will happen in ten.” The immeasurable success that he has seen since then is just further evidence of this truth.

Last but not least, I’d tell young leaders not to go where they’re not wanted and not stay where they don’t belong. While you seek to establish yourself as a leader, I would advise you to ask yourself an important question: “Is this MY place, or is it just A place?” There are many places you can go, but it takes self-reflection, will, and patience to find YOUR place. This is ultimately a question of what it means to belong, which is something that current leaders should consider as well if they hope to retain their talent. If you aren’t actively seeking to create belonging in your organization, you will lose your best people to organizations who are. To do this, you have to understand your value and your worth. When an organization shares this understanding with you, and demonstrates this understanding in its actions, compensation, and culture, stay.

To our future leaders, remember: 

  • Take a holistic operational perspective whenever possible.
  • Don’t take things too personally.
  • Have patience.
  • And always ask yourself: “Is this MY place, or is it A place?”
Torod B. Neptune is at Medtronic. This guest post also appears as an article on his always insightful LinkedIn page.

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