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The Anniversary Post: 20 Years, 20 Lessons


WhiteWater Consulting turns 20 this year, and I’ve been wondering where the time went and reflecting on what I’ve learned along the way. So, instead of the traditional gift of china, I thought I’d share 20 of the most important lessons I’ve learned from two decades of developing leaders and successful teams.

  1. Leadership is a work-in-progress. Leaders aren’t born, they’re constantly being made. You’re never done learning, growing, advancing.

  2. Charisma is not leadership. Too often, people with magnetic personalities end up in leadership positions but lack the skills to actually lead.

  3. Your title does not make you a leader. Lots of supervisors and managers are not true leaders. Leadership is not a title–it’s about aligning people to deliver results.

  4. Leadership can be learned. It requires a set of skills, both “soft” and strategic and tactical, to engage your team in delivering results.

  5. You can’t motivate people. Often confused with sticks and carrots–a bonus, a fancy title, fear of losing one’s job–true motivation comes from within.

  6. Values equal results. Clear, consistent values breed engagement. People want to contribute to something bigger than themselves.

  7. Leaders are values stewards. You lead by the example of your words and deeds which behaviours are in-bounds–and which are out.

  8. Character counts! The old adage that adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it, is fundamental to outstanding leadership.

  9. You may be wrong. Flexible thinking and questioning your assumptions are essential skills of any true leader.

  10. Read a lot and widely. Books are one of the best ways to expand your thinking. And go beyond the business titles to get ideas from diverse sources.

  11. Most leadership training is a waste of time. Without the right people in the room and lots of follow-up after the session, it won’t stick and ultimately won’t make a difference. Training design matters.

  12. Leadership transcends management functions. Delegating, planning and hiring are important, but great leadership is about so much more. It’s about character.

  13. Simple is better. Too many consultants make the simple complex–and the complex more complex! You can't lead if no one understands the plan, process or even the destination.

  14. Don’t ignore squeaky wheels. Often, the most significant insights come from your most vocal team members, who dare to share them. Listen. That pain-in-the-ass may have a point.

  15. Leadership requires deep listening. Leaders need to practice deep, empathetic listening to understand what’s truly happening and connect emotionally with your team members.

  16. It’s not about you. Egos can get pretty inflated at the top, which can seriously hinder a leader’s ability to stay focused on the team and your goals.

  17. Great leadership requires trust. If your team doesn’t believe in you, they won’t follow you. Values nurture trust and meaning.

  18. Caring and empathy are critical, too. If you don’t have them, why are you in a leadership role?

  19. Effective teams start with structure. Focus on purpose, roles, goals, scorecard, communications, process and accountability first, then worry about managing your team’s different personalities. Almost everyone gets this backwards.

  20. Enjoy the journey: Anniversaries and milestones are prime opportunities to stop and reflect on where you’ve come from and what you’ve learned and achieved along the way. For our team at WhiteWater, it’s been 20 fantastic years of working with great people who genuinely want to be the best leaders they can be. I hope we get 20 more!

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