Thrice Filtered Leadership Wisdom


As I prepare to attend the Wisdom 2.0 conference next month, I’ve been thinking a little bit about how to go about extracting the sum total of all humankind’s wisdom from this vast collection of information we’ve created called the World Wide Web. It seems like it should be do-able, although likely not easy. After all, wisdom is just a final endpoint along the classic data, information, knowledge, wisdom progression, and we’re already well along the way to encoding all of human knowledge via artifacts like Wikipedia and Google’s Knowledge Graph. One logical starting place would be to crowdsource the collection of wisdom. In my experience, however, typical crowdsourcing solutions (think: Yelp or Netflix) suffer from a lack of appropriate weighting of votes. I’m much more satisfied with systems that rely on aggregating the knowledge of subject matter experts (e.g., Michelin or Rotten Tomatoes), rather than systems that try to discern a quality signal by collecting the wisdom of the crowds. You can think of these opinions as “twice filtered” – first by the SME’s, and then by the algorithm.

When CNN Money published The Best Advice I Ever Got and The Best of Our Best Advice, in which they polled seasoned and successful business leaders to offer up their most useful nuggets of wisdom, I took note – here was some already twice-filtered wisdom (first by the adviser and then the advisee). And while the anecdotes and backstories provided in those articles are interesting and make the wisdom more tangible, I wanted to see if there were any common themes across the 41 interviewees. I talked briefly about one technique I used to summarize all of this wisdom in A Simple Semi-Automatic Text Summarizer, but that analysis only scratched the surface and missed a few key themes. So I’ve dug into the articles more deeply, categorized and prioritized the largest themes, and present them below in order of importance – a third layer of filtering. It’s gratifying to see that many of the most important themes like listening, mastery, passion, strengths and limitations, and persistence are all topics I’ve touched on in other leadership articles in this blog. I hope to follow up and expand on many of these themes as well, but in the meantime, I just present the filtered and grouped key observations. (Note: I paraphrase many of the quotes, and I attribute the advice to the original adviser when I can, and not the advisee.)

1. Listening

  • Listen to your employees, be completely engaged when you do so. – Herb Kelleher, CEO Southwest Airlines
  • Almost everyone knows something or has some insight – listen before you speak. – father of David Boies, “Superlawyer”
  • Be open to listening to people. – mother of Herb Kelleher
  • It’s good to solicit your people’s opinions before you give them yours. – boss of Lloyd Blankfein, CEO Goldman Sachs
  • No one is interested in talking all night long about your business. Quit being a business bore and listen. – sister of Julian Robertson, Founder, Tiger Management
  • The best advice is often the most painful advice, and you have to trust the person who’s giving it to you. – Beth Comstock, SVP General Electric
  • Have a coach. They watch you and get you to be your best. A business coach is somebody who looks at something with another set of eyes, describes it to you in [his] words, and discusses how to approach the problem. – John Doerr, Venture Capitalist

2. Mastery

  • If you’re going to be significant at something, you’ve got to learn it from the ground up. – father of Ron Johnson, CEO JC Penney
  • Invest yourself in what you’re building in order for it to grow.  Talk about what was wrong, what was right, what was working, and what wasn’t. – father of Ellen Kullman, CEO DuPont
  • If you don’t perform, you’d better look for another job. – boss of Peter Drucker
  • Do your best today, think about tomorrow, and maybe dream a bit about the future. But doing your best in the present has to be the rule. – Colin Powell, Secretary of State
  • Don’t just accept or reject the null hypothesis, use the data to enhance your description of the world. – Prof. Harry Roberts, Univ. of Chicago
  • Your people will be very influenced by how you carry yourself under stress. – boss of Lloyd Blankfein, CEO Goldman Sachs

3. Respect

  • Show your co-workers and employer respect – at the very least, show up on time. – “Bigfoot”, friend of Anthony Bourdain, Chef
  • Practice the golden rule. – Vice Admiral Robert Kihune
  • People should be respected and trusted as people, not because of their position or title. Frequently, position or title do not reflect the true merits of a person. – mother of Herb Kelleher
  • Everything in business is about relationships (especially with customers), and you should never take them lightly. – David Jackson, Co-Founder Altos Computer

4. Passion

  • You should do what you’re good at, and do what you love. – Danny Meenan, Reporter
  • Don’t give up, and continue to follow your passion. – friend of Mika Brzezinski, co-host Morning Joe
  • Connect your passions to your career. – Scott Griffith, CEO Zipcar
  • Follow your own instincts, rather than the views of naysayers or others who see the world in a different way. – Ace Greenberg, Bear Stearns

5. Challenge yourself and your assumptions

  • Failing simply just leads you to the next great thing. – father of Sara Blakely, Founder Spanx
  • Successful people do not let lack of experience get in the way of taking on a new opportunity. – Sheryl Sandberg, COO Facebook
  • Break new barriers all the time. – Simen Agdestein, Chess Coach
  • When everybody knows that something is so, it means that nobody knows nothin’. – Prof. Alois Xavier Schmidt, City College of New York

6. Leveraging Strengths

  • Don’t let your ego or desire to succeed blind you to what you’re really good at. – Warren Bennis, Scholar
  • Take your employee’s strengths and find a place you could emphasize them, so it won’t seem as if your team is competing directly with one another. – Keith Reemtsma, Columbia University
  • Don’t try to change ordinary people into extraordinary ones – hire extraordinary people in the first place. – Phil Knight, Nike co-founder

7. Understanding Limitations

  • Develop your ability to leave your own ego at the door and to recognize the skills and traits you don’t possess and that you need to build a world-class organization. – Warren Bennis, Scholar
  • It is better to be alive [and a] little weak than [to] be dead in good health. (98% perfect and on time, rather than 100% too late). – Gérard Pélisson, CEO Accor Hotels
  • Fix the things you can change and don’t worry about the things you can’t. – Alain Chuard, Co-Founder Wildfire
  • None of us are smarter than the markets. – Jack Bogle, Vanguard Founder

8. Persistence

  • You can’t always control what happens to you in a game or in life, but you can control how you respond — you should never quit. – mother of John Hickenlooper, Gov. of Colorado
  • Don’t give up, and continue to follow your passion. When you fail or things turn for the worse, there will be a day when you realize this was the best thing that could happen to you. – friend of Mika Brzezinski, co-host Morning Joe

9. Position for Growth

  • Invest ahead of the growth curve. Think beyond the status quo in terms of the skill base, the experience, and the quality of the people around you. – Warren Bennis, Scholar
  • Invest your time in growth businesses, not non-growth. – Arthur Levitt, Chairman American Stock Exchange

10. And more…

  • First, get the cow out of the ditch. Second, find out how the cow got into the ditch. Third, make sure you do whatever it takes so the cow doesn’t go into the ditch again. – Albert C. Black Jr., CEO On-Target Supplies & Logistics
  • Money, pedigree, and valuable relationships create leverage, but so do ideas. So you need to write – put what’s in your mind on paper.  – Jules Stein and Lew Wasserman, MCA
  • Incorporate volunteerism in your company, for the benefit of your employees. – Alan Hassenfeld, CEO Hasbro