11 Leadership Lessons You Didn’t Learn in School

UPDATED: April 14, 2016
PUBLISHED: April 14, 2016

There are some lessons they do not teach you in business school. Sometimes you just have to live and learn.

For business leaders—even the most successful ones—leadership itself presents daily challenges with consequences that can affect many people. Often the right path is not obvious or the easiest solution, but the lessons learned are invaluable and the experience is a rite of passage.

Related: 7 Personality Traits of a Great Leader

We asked 11 members of Young Presidents’ Organization, “What is the most important leadership lesson you have learned?” for examples.

1. To Engage

That the fastest road to success isn’t about assembling smart people and working hard, but rather engaging people in a bigger ideal than themselves and positively engaging people to work as a team.

—Richard (Rick) Kimball, founder of HEXL

2. To Listen

Learning to listen, because it means quieting the mind.

—Sanjay B. Kucheria, CEO of Trinus Corporation

3. To Improve (Always)

Whatever level you reach, getting better should never stop. We need to constantly invest in improvements and learning.

—Shailesh Chaturvedi, managing director and CEO of Tommy Hilfiger India

4. To Keep Calm

Although you have to trust people, you must be prepared to expect any kind of negative situation and keep calm and focused on your goal.

—Laura Asilis, president of Travelwise

5. To Let Go

Learning to let go and trust my team—full stop. The most difficult part for me was transitioning from trying to do everything myself to becoming a better delegator. As we scaled Grindr, I have learned the most important aspect of delegation is finding competent people—and not settling.

—Joel Simkhai, founder and CEO of Grindr

6. To Focus

A lesson I learned a few years ago is how to scale back to one’s core competencies. In the nonprofit sector, there is a pervasive belief that each organization has to be all things to the clients they serve. But in doing so, we dilute the quality of the direct services we provide.

—Suzanne Klahr, CEO of BUILD

7. To Be Objective

From the very beginning I have led from the heart more than the head. This has paid off in the larger scheme, but I have received my fair share of hard knocks. It took a while for me to learn the value of measured decision-making and objective analysis of difficult situations.

—Lavina Valiram, managing director of Anaika Collections S/B

8. To Scrutinize Ideas

Falling in love with an idea before testing it—what you love might not be the case with others (and especially your target customer).

—Adarsh Radia, founder of Telenomics

9. To Inspire

My mentor was talking to me about how leaders must be inspiring to other members on their teams. Quite a lot of leadership is about the energy that we bring to the table, and the energy of the leader is the energy that mobilizes and inspires the team to go forward.

—Joelle Goudsmit, president of Dimension-All Formworks and Scaffoldings

10. To Be Balanced

Managing the balance between motivating/coaching/influencing on one hand and being demanding and managing performance on the other.

—Samer Halawi, CEO of Thuraya Telecommunications

11. To Disrupt

You cannot be a leader and make tough decisions without upsetting some people. If you are going to make improvements or initiate change or do anything at all unique or innovative, it is going to be disruptive for people. Some people will appreciate you for it, but there are just as many who will want to blame you for it. Once I realized that I couldn’t be the leader I need to be and be everyone’s friend, things got a little easier.

—Michael Sanderson, CEO of Sanderson Stewart

Related: 4 Inspiring Quotes From the Most Influential Leaders of All Time


YPO (Young Presidents’ Organization) is the world’s premier network of chief executives and business leaders connected through the shared mission of becoming Better Leaders Through Lifelong Learning and Idea Exchange™. YPO provides 23,000 peers and their families in more than 130 countries with access to unique educational and networking experiences designed to support their business, community and personal leadership.

YPO is the premier chief executive leadership organization in the world, representing a global community of leaders committed to the shared mission of becoming "Better Leaders Through Lifelong Learning and Idea Exchange." YPO today provides more than 24,000 members in more than 130 countries with access to extraordinary educational resources, alliances with leading institutions, and specialized networks designed to support their business, community and personal leadership. Altogether, YPO member-run companies employ more than 15 million people around the world and generate USD6 trillion in annual revenues. For more information, visit www.ypo.org.