David Rubenstein is fascinated with leadership. The Carlyle Group cofounder interviews CEOs, entrepreneurs, and game-changers in his book, How To Lead. The interviews include everyone from Indra Nooyi to Jeff Bezos and offer fascinating insights for anyone who aspires to greatness.
I find Rubenstein’s introduction the most valuable part of the book because he breaks down the common habits successful leaders share in any field. Nearly everyone who has achieved something great focuses, fails, persists, and persuades.
Focus your energy on truly mastering one skill or subject, says Rubenstein. You can broaden your focus only after establishing your credibility and expertise in that area.
For example, when former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi was working her way up at the company, she specialized in simplifying complex ideas and communicating them effectively. So when senior managers needed someone to pour through thousands of pages of competitive analysis and summarize it for them, they turned to Nooyi.
Be known for something–and then broaden your skills.
“Any leader has failed at something or many things,” writes Rubenstein. The key, he says, is to learn from the experience.
The word “fail” appears about forty times throughout Rubenstein’s book. Successful leaders, especially entrepreneurs, wear failure as a badge of honor. They make mistakes, own them, learn from them, and make radical improvements based on what they learn.
Legendary Duke basketball coach “Coach K,” said he learned to deal with disappointments and failures while he was a player and then a coach at West Point. “I learned that failure was never a destination. In other words, figure out why [you failed] and then change.”
If you’re afraid to fail, you’ll never try. Instead, reframe failure as a stepping stone to greatness.
A game-changing entrepreneur is someone who does something new and different. And that person will always encounter resistance from others who are comfortable with the status quo. According to Rubenstein, “The key is to persist when others say no or fight against the change you want to make.”
Rubenstein himself faced doubters when he wanted to build a private equity firm in Washington, D.C, an area that wasn’t considered a hotbed of financial activity at the time. “The more I was told it couldn’t be done, the more I was determined to persist with my dream and ambition.”
Rubenstein’s experience reminds me of the common wisdom early in the pandemic about remote work. Many people thought it couldn’t be done efficiently because the status quo required that everyone show up to the office. It took months for organizations to acknowledge that much of the work could get done from home.
Any new idea you have will encounter resistance, and others will try to talk you out of pursuing that big idea. Don’t let the naysayers get you down.
“It is impossible to lead if no one is following,” writes Rubenstein. And attracting followers requires persuasion through the means of writing, speaking, and communicating.
Persuasion and communication–my ‘focus’ subjects–are crucial to succeed in any leadership position. The good news is that communication is a skill that you can improve. And learning is never-ending. Even at his level of success, Rubenstein says he’s constantly learning “through trial and error to improve my basic writing and speaking skills.”
Success leaves clues. If the world’s greatest CEOs, founders, and game changers practice these four habits, so should you.