The day before I had flown from Brussels, connecting through Newark, on to Cincinnati for a meeting the next day. My morning was free, so I went to get a haircut. The TV was on and suddenly there was breaking news. It broke our hearts and changed our lives. It was September 11.

In the weeks that followed, the shock slowly receded, and life began to move forward again. Despite the horror of it—maybe because of the horror of it–the shared experience brought people together, in many cases people who otherwise would never have connected. There was beauty in seeing strangers quietly supporting one another, looking out for one another, even if it was only something as small as a smile, a nod, an extra kind word, or “no, you go first”. 

What I remember most—what I want to remember most—is the resilience of people. They had experienced something terrible. They worked through it. And then they found their way forward, not by ignoring or forgetting it, but by incorporating it, learning from it, drawing from it, converting it to energy to propel them forward. That kind of resilience. It’s inspiring.  

A few weeks later, I was back in Belgium and my wife and I joined friends for dinner at a small restaurant in a town near Belgium’s border with France. We were about to leave when the proprietor approached our table and asked if we were Americans. He told us a story of what he and his parents experienced during the second world war, and he told the story with unbridled emotion that more than compensated for our inadequate French. He said he was with us and he loved us (even though he didn’t know us).

For September 11, I won’t ever forget. But what I most willingly remember is the beauty of the resilience people found within themselves and the beauty of the deeper and wider connection people felt with others (even strangers) through a shared experience, even though it was something awful. I want to remember these things just as much 20 years from now as I do today.

“Wartime CEO” and The J-Curve

A 2011 blog post by Ben Horowitz helped to popularize the concept of the “peacetime CEO/wartime CEO”. In times of crisis, this concept is sometimes cited as a rationale for the “wartime CEO” approach, meaning a more hard-core, command-and-control, higher intensity style of leadership. The 2011 blog post says, among other things, a wartime CEO is paranoid, unforgiving, and doesn’t tolerate disagreement or “indulge” in consensus building.

There is another concept called the J-Curve. (See the 2006 book by the same name, written by Ian Bremmer.) The J-Curve describes styles of national government, showing the relationship between openness (freedom) and stability. It also works well as a model for corporate leadership. An illustration of the J-Curve is shown below.

Let’s apply the J-Curve to a typical company. Let’s say the company is currently at position A on the curve (see below). Position A is a good place to be. If you’re there, you might hope to move a little further up-and-to-the-right over time, but even if you don’t, you can live well at position A for a long time.

Then along comes a crisis, pushing the company to position B on the curve, where there is both less stability and less openness. In response to the crisis, if the CEO chooses to adopt a “wartime CEO” approach, this shifts the company further, toward position C on the curve, restoring some stability, but reducing openness even more.

Months go by, the company survives, and the crisis begins to lift. Now, what happens? The company wants to return to its prior position on the J-Curve (position A), reflecting its desire to operate with more openness, which is important for innovation, workplace attractiveness, and the culture it desires. But there is no ferry boat to take them directly from position C to A; they have to travel along the curve, passing first through position B and another period of decreased stability before arriving where they want to be longer term (position A).

This “travel back” along the curve is almost always an unexpected challenge, taxing an already tired team who, post-crisis, thought they were in the clear. This is an extra cost of the wartime CEO approach: the added post-crisis challenge it brings and the drag it puts on a company trying to get back on track. It’s one of many reasons to resist the wartime CEO approach as much as possible. In an extreme situation, it might be the right choice, but it isn’t a choice to relish or admire. If you choose it (or have chosen it), be ready for the extra challenge post-crisis.

3 Things I Learned as CEO

Recently, I was interviewed by Business Day, a leading publication in Nigeria, when I was in Lagos to speak at the West Africa Business Leaders Summit. The full article (no paywall) can be found here. An excerpt is below. They asked me the following question:

“As a former CEO of a multinational organisation with operations in over 100 countries and an employer of approximately 45,000 people worldwide, what is your greatest learning?”

One of my greatest learnings as CEO of Nielsen is that my jokes were funnier when I was CEO than both before and after I was CEO. And in that little piece of humour is also contained a little wisdom and warning for all of us as leaders, which is that we have to resist the artificial bubble of leadership and stay grounded in reality, truth, and authenticity.

Another of my most important learnings is that the role luck plays in our success is larger than most of us realize or are otherwise willing to admit. Recognizing the role luck plays in our success carries at least two big benefits: 1. It keeps us humble, and humility is an essential trait for a good leader; and 2. It keeps us resilient. If some of our successes are a result of luck (vs. only our hard work and brilliance), then the same is true of some of our failures, and when they occur, this recognition encourages us to pick ourselves up, keep moving forward, and try again.

Finally, my most important learning of all was that while the world will judge us by our outcomes, we will ultimately judge ourselves by the quality of our motives, the quality of our decisions, and the wake we create for the people around us. When I force myself to be quiet and still and I take a long look in the mirror, I see the truth. Do I like what I see? This ultimately has proven more important to me and the people I care most about than anything else.

Leadership Paradoxes: Clear, Consistent, Steadfast AND Open, Ready to Change

Recently, Business Day, a leading publication in Nigeria, interviewed me when I was in Lagos to speak at the West Africa Business Leaders Summit. The full article (no paywall) can be found here. An excerpt is below.

Business Day: “What one piece of advice would you offer individuals in critical leadership positions of businesses in the country?”

One of the most important things a leader must do is create clarity for the organization. This requires a very clear, consistent, and confident communication of the mission (what we do), purpose (why it is valuable to the world), and strategies (the changes and improvements we intend to make). The organization needs to be able to count on the leader for this clarity, consistency, and steadfastness.

However, at the same time leaders are projecting a picture of clarity, consistency, and steadfastness, they also need to remain fully open, constantly learning, and always ready to change, at least as fast as the world around them is changing. According to Singularity University, the pace of change in the world today requires us to be in “learning mode” for at least 100 days per year! So that’s the challenge: On the one hand, the team needs the leader to provide stability and clarity, but leaders can never afford to become still, and they must constantly be entertaining new ideas. Balancing these two competing interests well is one of the most critical skills for a successful leader.

Click here to read about another leadership paradox: Confidence AND Humility


When a large group of business leaders shows up on a Friday evening (without drinks being served), highly engaged and ready to invest in their growth as leaders, it’s inspiring. That’s exactly what happened recently in Romania’s city of Cluj-Napoca. It is a city to invest in, with its large and growing IT sector, excellent local universities, and–most important of all–its strong community of business leaders. Thank you to Daniel Lar (managing director of Yonder) and Ruben Marian (founder & CEO of Utilben ) for inviting me to join them at one of their quarterly GuildTalks gatherings to talk about culture, balance, the role luck plays in success, and the Global Leadership Summit, which will take place in 5 locations in Romania this year, with well over 1000 attendees.

Above, with Daniel Lar at GuildTalks January 31, 2020
in the city of Cluj-Napoca in Romania (below)

The following day, I was invited to record a session of the “When In Ro” podcast (which I’m told is #1 in Romania) with hosts Trevor and Matt. They asked me questions about the difference between “leadership” and “influence”, doing business in China, handling criticism, the best question for a leader to ask, and other topics. To listen, click here for the web player or here to listen via Spotify.

I also toured Colina Noua, a new community being developed north of the city of Cluj-Napoca, with high quality homes, a school, a farm for fresh local produce, and a village with shops. It’s the result of wonderful collaboration by a team of Romanians and Americans with a vision for high quality, affordable, and sustainable living.

The Biggest Need? “Good Leadership”

In October 2019, I traveled to Johannesburg in South Africa, where I met Joe Mabuela, who took me to Soweto, the large township southwest of Johannesburg (this is where Soweto gets its name…South west township). Soweto is a densely populated township with 5-7 million people living in challenging conditions. Joe grew up in Soweto and his mother still lives there, so he knows it intimately.

Joe Mabuela

As we walked through a section of Soweto, I asked Joe, “What’s the biggest need here: infrastructure, education, health care, clean water, security…?” Joe stopped, turned, and said without hesitation, “The biggest need is leadership. More leadership, better leadership. All of those other things are important needs, but they are mostly symptoms of too little leadership, ineffective leadership, corrupt leadership.” I was struck by his answer and the conviction in his voice. 

A few days later, I read a summary of a global Barna Group study of Gen Z and Millenials, who “perceive deep, wide, systemic problems facing the world’s future.” Four out of five (82%) agreed with this statement: “society is facing a crisis of leadership because there are not enough good leaders right now.” It was one of the most widely endorsed statements in the entire survey.

A shortage of good leadership, not just on a local level, in places like Soweto, where the effects are in plain view, but also on a global level, as seen through the eyes of the generations who will inherit the future and are looking to take on a bigger share of the leadership roles from their Gen X and Boomer colleagues. As they do, they should be readily welcomed.

As Joe Mabuela noted, good leadership is critical because of the amplifying, multiplying effect is has on everything else. Adding more good leadership to the mix translates to better outcomes across the board. True locally in Soweto. True globally when applied to the big challenges facing the world today. True in every organization I’ve ever been a part of.

Despite, not Because

Our circumstances often make progress and success difficult. If we fall short, the temptation is to point to our circumstances as reasons why (“We fell short because…”). But good leadership is about “despite”, not “because”.  

The reality is that bad things happen. Even if the bad things are unknown when we begin the effort, we should expect them anyway. “Unknown” doesn’t mean “unexpected”. We should build our plans and operate in such a way that allows us to absorb the additional challenges that often arise. Doing this enables us to make progress and succeed despite them. Think about it like this:  When you get to the end of the year, you can either say, “We worked hard but fell short because of [a, b, and, c].  Or you can say, “During the year, several challenges arose, none of which we knew about at the start; but we succeeded despite those things.” The first one is somewhat consoling. The second one is inspiring.

Succeeding despite difficult circumstances doesn’t happen by accident. It happens as a result of the choices we make to prepare and plan for the challenges even before they occur, as well as how we respond with discipline, creativity, and perseverance once they happen. In his book, Great by Choice, Jim Collins tells this story (I’ve summarized):

In 1911, two teams set out for the South Pole. One team was led by Amundsen; the other was led by Scott. Amundsen’s team made it there and back, while Scott’s team perished. Although the two teams faced nearly identical conditions, they differed in their choices related to discipline, preparation, creativity, and ambition. Amundsen’s team survived and succeeded despite their circumstances, while Scott’s team perished because of them. 

Even if you currently aren’t racing to the South Pole, you still might be facing multiple challenges at almost every step of whatever journey you’re on. Remember “despite, not because.” This is a lot of what leadership is about. We all can be very good at diagnosing our shortfall and explaining all of the valid reasons why we couldn’t do more. But a big part of leadership is about finding a way forward despite it all.

Leadership Paradoxes: Confidence and Humility

Confidence is inspiring. Humility is endearing. 

Confidence helps others believe in us in the absence of certainty. In fact, confidence also helps us to believe in ourselves in the absence of certainty. 

Humility helps us to see how and when to put the team’s interests ahead of our own self interest. An Aussie named John Dickson, author of the book Humilitas, says, “Humility is the noble choice to forgo your status and use your influence for the good of others before yourself.” Humility, when seen in us by others, helps us to be seen as open and available to new ideas and alternative points of view, which helps us to learn and grow.

All good, right? But don’t overdo it. Too much confidence can look like arrogance. Too much humility can look like weakness. Confidence and humility balance one another. In a sense, they need each other.

The Best Question for a Leader to Ask

Good leaders ask good questions. Questions (as opposed to statements) signal a willingness to listen. They convey values and reinforce desired behaviors. They foster learning.

But what is the best question for a leader to ask?  It’s a question that we ask ourselves (not others) when we are faced with an especially difficult challenge or situation.  The question is, “What would a great leader do?”

Why is this a good question?

  • It demonstrates humility.  By asking this question, we are saying, “I am not always a great leader, but I know what one looks like. I can learn from great leaders. If a great leader were faced with this situation that I am faced with right now, what would she or he do?”
  • It raises the standard of your leadership above the circumstances of your leadership.  When you ask, “What would a great leader do?” you are stretching yourself toward excellence. The question helps us to rise above our emotions and biases and helps to take a broader view of what we should do.
  • It reveals motive. It reveals fear or weakness. Sometimes it is our personal interest that keeps us from doing what a great leader would do, which is what is best for the greater good and the longer term. Sometimes it is our fear or our desire to avoid conflict. 

What would a great leader do?  This question gives you glimpse of what could be or should be for you as a leader.

This question applies to the other important roles in our lives, too. When faced with an especially difficult or challening situation, we can ask… What would a great spouse do right now? What would a great friend do? What would a great parent do in this situation? What would a great teammate do?

Listen here to an audio clip (8 minutes) from Andy Stanley to learn more.

Highlights from the 2019 Global Leadership Summit

The Global Leadership Summit took place on August 8-9, 2019, attended by over 100,000 people at over 100 sites all across North America. In the coming months, another 250,000+ people will attend rebroadcasts of the Summit at hundreds of sites in 130+ countries around the world. 2019 is the 25th year of the Summit (and my 14th year attending). Below are some of my key take-aways from the speakers at this year’s Summit:

Rejection (Jia Jiang, author, entrepreneur)

  • Learning to handle rejection enables us to take more smart risks. 
  • Mr. Jiang took a “100-day rejection challenge” and, from that, created a Ted talk and wrote a book. Human, hilarious, and incredibly insightful, his story is worth hearing.

Pluck (Liz Bohannon, co-founder, Sseko Designs)

  • While luck plays an important role, entrepreneurs also need “pluck” (“spirited and determined courage”). She has a new book called Beginner’s Pluck.
  • The role of a leader is not to be a hero to others, but to inspire others to be the hero in their own story.
  • Most of us are average, but capable of doing special things.
  • Dreaming small (not big) and building your passion (vs. trying to find it) takes away our excuses and pushes us to act.

Generational Differences (Jason Dorsey, Research Center for Generational Kinetics)

  • If you’re leading a team/organization/business, take time to understand the important differences in people by generation (Gen Z, Millenials, Gen X, Boomers) and adapt your approach accordingly. 
  • Outstanding talk…entertaining and informative for people of every generation. You can find more information here and here.

Integrity (Raja Singh, chartered accountant from India)

  • Most people will choose to be honest if there is a leader who will reinforce their choice.
  • The cure for corruption comes from each leader living a life of integrity within their sphere of influence, willing to sacrifice in the short term.

Motives (Patrick Lencioni, author, founder of The Table Group)

  • Yes, the world is always in need of more leaders, but not everyone should be a leader (!) 
  • If you’re focused on the rewards of leadership (attention, status, power, money), please don’t be a leader. If you’re focused on the responsibility of leadership (serving others, doing what needs to be done even when it’s unpleasant), please do be a leader. 

Negotiating (Chris Voss, former FBI hostage negotiator, author)

  • Getting an early, clear “no” is better than getting a hedged “yes”. 
  • Silence and mirroring are good tactics to learn. Silence means you talk less, the other person talks more. Mirroring (the practice of repeating the last thing the other person just said, using a similar tone, voice, speed, movements) builds connection and conveys empathy. People are much more likely to make a deal with someone they like.

Leading and Innovating (Craig Groeschel, founding pastor, Life.Church)

  • Creativity is easier with clear constraints. A truly blank sheet of paper might be the toughest environment for creativity to take root and thrive. 
  • When we want to persuade or inspire, we often over-use facts and under-use stories. Stories stick; facts fade. Best approach: Choose both. Use a story, anchored by facts, that brings the truth from those facts to life and builds emotion that leads to action.

Being Your True Self (Bozema Saint John, CMO, Endeavor)

  • Diversity is “being invited to the party.” Inclusion is “being asked to dance.”

Disrupted Environments (Ben Sherwood, former president, Disney ABC)

  • When marketplace conventions and norms are followed, the stronger player wins 71% of the time. When conventions and norms are discarded, the weaker player wins 63% of the time, because weaker players more readily embrace unconventional ideas and approaches. 

Accidental Creative (Todd Henry, founder, Accidental Creative)

  • Trust is not a bank account; it’s more like a water balloon.
  • Three elements of sustainable success: prolific (be productive), brilliant (do good work), and healthy (operate in a sustainable manner).
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