Five Leadership Principles Rooted In Experience

Thomas Frank, former operating executive and founder of Ascend, is a strategic advisor to companies and executives around the globe.

I am frequently asked for my “secrets” for developing great leaders. Alternatively, I am challenged to defend my views by an audience enamored with someone else’s leadership philosophy. I’ve encountered all kinds of methodologies and approaches for cultivating leadership based on theories, historical business success and behavioral science. Truth and hyperbole exist in almost every point of view. What follows are five of my own career experiences that defined my “why.” These experiences are neither a curated road map nor an exhaustive checklist.

1. Mentorship is the most powerful accelerant for leadership development.

I was lucky to start my career in advertising at Procter & Gamble. At P&G, mentoring was a daily expectation for everyone in management. Within a few weeks of my arrival, the most senior executives in my division knew my name and made a point of acknowledging me if we crossed paths. The managers provided constructive feedback as part of every memo I learned to write and every meeting I attended. Coaching was the culture. In fact, the impactful leaders measured their own effectiveness on the speed of my growth and success. P&G saw the investment in their future leaders as a sacred trust and shared responsibility. Making their people “the very best they could be” was a source of great pride. Providing tangible examples of living this mindset was also a critical component of every individual performance review. At P&G, I learned that cultures with an open enthusiasm for mentoring are a “must have.” This experience defined my foundational leadership skills. P&G celebrated the criticality of mentorship as a privilege and an obligation.

2. Accountability should be your personal brand. 

Dick Clark built a multimedia empire that has worldwide recognition. He was also an incredibly hard-working man and the best boss I’ve ever had. Clark was a charismatic leader, but he was also pragmatic. He taught me that my actions (and inactions) would eventually become my brand. He took accountability for every deal and every promise he made. His axiom was “on time and on budget.” He lived by that rule. Learning to operate in a constant state of accountability meant learning the relationship between accountability and trust. It also created many opportunities to manage through chaos. He showed me how committed leaders always find a way to live up to their promises and hold themselves to higher standards of accountability.

3. Emotional decisions are rarely your best ones. 

I was the COO of a tech company during a time of explosive growth. It was my first leadership role rapidly scaling a public company with a brilliant (but mercurial) founder. The CEO and I were very different in many ways. This is why our initial partnership worked well. We could drill down through an issue together with lightning speed. Unfortunately, our differences were ultimately our undoing. Struggles around operating styles and control created a schism. The night I resigned from the company, I was seething from a steady stream of the CEO’s comments that had demotivated our team. I quit publicly in a large meeting. Executives chased after me to coerce me to stay as I fled the building. In that moment, I felt relieved. I also felt smug burning that bridge. Later, when I calmed down, I was able to critically assess my immaturity. I now wish I had tried to save my relationship with the CEO. I learned the hard way about behaviors that do a disservice to you and your team.


4. Vulnerable leaders build stronger relationships and better teams.

The first television show I was hired to produce was a “documentary style” look at the lives of skaters featured in the Ice Capades. Before I could say “double axle,” I was riding a tour bus with a production crew in Missouri trying to find our story. The problem was I had no idea what I was doing. I was an imposter who also happened to be the boss. My seasoned crew immediately figured out they were saddled with an inexperienced rookie, but no one wanted to risk pointing out that their “emperor” had no clothes. The director was the only person who was willing to pull me aside. “If you are willing to learn, I will teach you,” he said. I had a split second to decide if I would cling to my title or surrender to the experience of someone smarter. I chose help and gratitude. I learned asking for help is the most powerful tool in my leadership portfolio. Sometimes leaders get lost and it’s OK. I earned respect by admitting what I didn’t know. “A Skater’s Dream” turned out OK because my vulnerability created space for my team to leverage their own skills and experience. Years later, that same director is one of the most highly regarded professionals in the business. He’s also a lifelong friend.

5. Leaders want to keep learning.

Later in my career, I was recruited to run an entrepreneurship program at the University of Michigan. I did not see any fit for my skills in one of the highest-ranked engineering programs in the world. I was a journeyman entrepreneur with a few wins and more losses. I was not an academic. I hold no advanced degrees. The recruiter asked me if I would be willing to speak with the hiring faculty member, and I reluctantly agreed to a conversation with Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen. He is a noted Swiss-American astrophysicist who currently holds a senior post at NASA. Thomas is smarter sound asleep than I have ever been at my most awake. Intellect is not what makes him an amazing leader. Curiosity and a relentless desire to learn are what elevate this man to MVP status. Thomas taught me that interesting leaders are just as excited to talk about their failures as their successes. His eyes catch fire every time he shares something new he’s learned. Thomas challenged me to evangelize learning.

Bottom line: I believe leadership is shaped by your experiences as a leader, and I invite you to examine your own. What are your guiding fundamental leadership principles?

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