I’ve been a general manager for most of my nearly thirty-year career. Among many other roles, I’ve been a military officer, a manufacturing CEO, and a senior administrator at a university. Despite the seemingly dissimilar nature of these fields of work, I’ve learned that the challenges of a general manager and leader rarely vary. There are truths that transcend industry sector.

The list below includes some lessons I’ve learned on my own, but also draws on the comments and experiences of others playing on much bigger stages. If you'd like to share your own insights, please leave a comment below! 

  1. Err toward action: The famous British admiral Lord Nelson has been quoted frequently as having said, “…no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.” What rarely gets mentioned is the first part of that quotation. The entire sentence reads, “But in case signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.” 

    In business, the same is true. Doing nothing, especially because of “analysis paralysis,” can be more deadly than making your best guess and taking action. So, when in doubt, take action!

  2. Always say thank you: My mother is a stickler for thank you notes. She drilled into my sisters and I the importance of sending such notes for every kindness extended our way when we were growing up. While her motivation stemmed from an adherence to a code of personal conduct, the principle is important in other contexts as well.

    Winston Churchill said during the Battle of Britain, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed to so many by so few.” He was referring to the RAF pilots protecting Britain during an onslaught of German air attacks early in World War II. Such vocal support of outstanding performance by a leader is an important part of success. CEOs and others who do it engender the support of those they lead. 

  3. Don't be afraid to say no: Strategy should always have a focus. Without focus, you are stuck with a list of disjointed “to dos.” Warren Buffet reinforced this thinking when he said, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that the really successfully people say ‘no’ to almost everything.” It’s saying “no” to the things on a haphazard to-do list that starts to shape a strategy. The graveyard of corporate failures is littered with companies that tried to be all things to all people. 

  4. It’s okay to be lucky, it’s okay to be smart; it’s not okay to be lucky and think you’re smart: A professor from business school said this once and it’s stuck with me for a long time. I would argue that those who know the difference between luck and smarts do better in life. 

  5. Remember how important it is to have the right people in the right place: Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, wrote that the first job of a leader is to “get the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) before you figure out where to drive it.” 

    Note how precise he is with the order of events. Strategy and tactical initiatives (i.e., where you are driving) are relatively impotent unless you have a team of people in roles that maximize their skills and ensure alignment throughout the organization.  

  6. “What’s the worst that can happen?” are five powerful words: It’s in our nature to try and find out as much as possible before making a decision. And generally speaking, knowing more is better than knowing less. But eventually you get to a point where you have to ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” 

    Often we paint disasters in our head without really stepping back and thinking through the likely and unlikely outcomes. Sometimes it's worth it to pull the trigger, gather data based on what happens, and then adjust accordingly.

  7. The creativity of humans is greater than the capacity of businesses to predict the future:  Charles Duell, the one-time Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office in 1899 infamously said “everything that can be invented has been invented.” In the first ten years after his pronouncement, the nickel-zinc battery, carbide lamp, thumbtack, safety razor, hearing aid, windowed envelope, postage meter, collapsible periscope, airplane, windshield wiper, and paper towel were all invented.

    It’s hard to know what somebody working in a garage somewhere in the world might come up with next. And this explains why many leaders and companies lose their strategic way: they don’t keep top of mind all of the brains out there working to make the better mouse trap. It’s important to ask yourself often, “What am I missing? What opportunities does somebody else see that I don’t?” Companies that do this well are not completely protected from competitive threat, but they have a decided edge.

  8. Culture matters…a LOT: The recent incident on a United Airlines flight shows that culture matters immensely in an organization and, I’d argue, is more important the larger a company is.  You cannot legislate empathy through an employee handbook. It has to be in the DNA of an organization. If it’s not, bad things happen.

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Patrick Mullane

About the Author

Patrick Mullane is the Executive Director of Harvard Business School Online and is responsible for managing HBS Online’s growth and long-term success. A military veteran and alumnus of Harvard Business School, Patrick is passionate about finding ways to use technology to enhance the mission of the School—to educate leaders who make a difference in the world.