A corporate leadership mantra: It's not about you

Ian Lurie
Ian Lurie Nameplate

I just finished reading Steve Jobs’ biography. He was an extraordinary person, but a lousy leader. That, plus some basic life lessons slowly penetrating my thick skull, made me realize:

Leadership isn’t all about you. If it is, you’re not a leader—you’re a narcissist.

“It’s not about me” is a mantra I’ve learned to repeat when:

Someone bursts into tears

The first time I witnessed this it broke my heart. We were reviewing a project crisis. I was visibly frustrated, no question about it. But there were no raised voices. No swearing. No drama. And we’d fixed the problem. What had I done to make her so upset? This was just the post-mortem.

Of course, she had more going on than this one project. And she was frustrated, too. Timing played a bigger part than I did.

It’s not a license to be an insensitive schmuck, but sometimes colleagues hit their limit, and it has nothing to do with you. Instead of stressing about what you did, be sympathetic. Hand over a tissue, or something to throw (I’ve done both for either gender).

Someone leaves

5 minutes after I’d finished extolling the virtues of a top account strategist, she walked into my office. Sorry boss, she said, someone offered me 75% higher salary.

At that point, I had two options:

  • Pull the pin in my head and explode;
  • Smile and wish them well.

I started with the latter. After they left I switched to pin/explode. A few Kit Kats and a decent night’s sleep gave me more perspective, though: I couldn’t match the gigantic salary increase. Nor could I blame her for taking it.

Most important, this wasn’t part of some Universe-wide conspiracy to make my life miserable. I can do that on my own. This was one person, getting one job offer. Nothing more.

You save the day

I helped a client get back into Google’s good graces. My first impulse: Pat myself on the back and say ‘Go Ian!!!!!’


I never could’ve done the work without 30+ other people handling every other aspect of Portent’s business. Or the sanity-saving regex advice from our company expert.

Yes, you saved the day. Without a team, though, you wouldn’t have had the time.

The company loses big

Ah, the cursed project. Gotta love it. Difficult client, slow vendors, economic problems, countless screw-ups from every member of the team.

Business is personal. Failure infinitely more so. It’d be easy to rant and rave and try to fix things with an act of will.

It won’t work. Everyone on the team has to learn, improve and move on.

The company wins big

See ‘you save the day,’ above.

It’s not sinking in

I’ve poured thousands of hours into documenting what we do, mentoring and teaching. It works great about 90% of the time. The other 10%, you’re certain you’re dead, and this is punishment for all the times you ignored your parents.

If one person doesn’t get it, that’s a problem they have to fix.

If no one gets it, that’s a problem you have to fix.

The more common problem, though, is that some folks learn from you and some don’t. They’re not stupid and you’re not incompetent. Try changing teachers: Have a colleague teach, instead. A different approach by a different person can boost comprehension x10.

Everyone wants to please you

This isn’t about your ego. It’s about fulfillment and fear. Fulfillment from doing a good job; fear of not having one.

You must have high standards, and communicate them. I’m demanding as hell and I always will be. Just remember that, if you sign the paychecks, those around you want you happy. Make sure everyone understands the difference between ‘demanding’ and ‘threatening’.

PS: You’ll always fail at this. Just try to fail less each time.

When it is about you

Sometimes, it is about you:

  1. You set the company’s standards for quality. If you don’t care, no one does. Demand great stuff and you’ll get it.
  2. You’re the canary. Run in circles screaming “Oh GOD we’re all DOOMED” and chances are, everyone will follow suit.
  3. You establish your company’s character. Work for good karma.
  4. One positive or negative word from you can make/ruin someone’s day. Don’t be a butt.

That’s the sum total of my leadership knowledge, aside from stuff like ‘You still get zits.’

I’d love input, as always.

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  1. Ian, this is SO concise and accurate. A couple I can relate to so well right now and I’ve experienced all at other points. This is going under personal bookmarks for the hard times that require a reminder. Thank you. 🙂

    1. I agree with Rhea. So much in here resonates with where I’m at right now (and look at that, 2 seconds in and I’ve already made it about me).
      I really like the “It’s not sinking in” bit:
      “If one person doesn’t get it, that’s a problem they have to fix. If no one gets it, that’s a problem you have to fix.”
      I am queen of talking in big, visionary language that frustrates the hell out of the grounded, and analytical peeps on our team.
      I need to work on that 😉

  2. Ian, hope you don’t mind but I am going to print this off and put it on my office wall. A fantastic reminder for me, I don’t have a team of 30 I only have a team of me and 3 others but its still pertinent in any case.
    Thanks so much for posting 🙂

  3. Been doing a lot of reading in recent years – everything from business/leadership (most memorably, Start with Why, Good to Great, Go-Giver) to spiritual (Bhagavad Gita) and the thing I find common always is exactly this: it’s incredibly important to have the utmost integrity and pursuit of excellence.
    While you’re the center of your integrity/excellence, it certainly doesn’t mean everything and everyone should revolve around you. We’re pre-conditioned to chase praise in times of glory and avoid blame in times of distress. We each have to resist and fight these urges to instead, make it about others in the good times and assume responsibility in times of bad.
    Like you said, your actions and words set the tone and the bar for others. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I love this post so much Ian. A lot of these lessons feel very real for me right now and I take on a more leadership-specific role. One thing I’ve been fortunate to witness from Rand first hand is — leaders work FOR their teams. He says it all the time about the team here at Moz, and I very much feel that way for my team. I work FOR them. My time, effort, and energy should be spent on and for them.
    I’m still learning, and expect this will very much be a career-long evolution, so I really appreciate transparent posts like this. Its great to hear others struggle with these moments. Leadership is hard. But being intentional about it, and constantly asking yourself how you can be better (or taking note of the lessons learned like above) is such an important part of it all. Thanks for this post!

  5. Spot on advice. I like reading your blog because it imparts unconventional wisdom. The extreme highs and lows are part of the gig, and although they affect ‘your baby’ as a founder, they affect the team around you just as much. We’re coming up on a milestone similar to the Inc 500 later this month and as I think about it, it wouldn’t have been possible without the team at Powered by Search. There’s folks who left because I couldn’t match their salaries elsewhere, those who stayed for the culture and the challenge, and clients who stuck by us through thick and thin as well. Looking back, it wouldn’t have been possible without any one of them (clients, team, partners).

  6. This post reminds me of a saying my former mentor told me. Your employees do 80% of what you do right and 100% of what you do wrong. Great post Ian.

  7. This is a fantastic post. I think I had a braingasm at “If one person doesn’t get it, that’s a problem they have to fix. If no one gets it, that’s a problem you have to fix”. Sometimes a different perspective really is all it takes. Everyone learns a little differently.
    I think it’s also important to LISTEN. It’s easy to assume that you, as the leader, are the all-seeing eye of what’s best for the team. Listen to your colleagues. Listen to your clients. They’ll tell you what you’re already doing well and what could use some improvement.
    Thanks for the post. I always love your insights.

  8. This awesome post literally scream for a better title 🙂 Something like “8 secret signals to identify a scumbag entrepreneur” or “Have you Megatron as CEO ?” 😀
    …and now i’ve just imagined Optimus Prime writing the whole article.

  9. Great post Ian!
    I think it’s very important to communicate the above to your employees. It’s one thing to live by these principals, but I think it’s just as important to verbally communicate these to your team. I saw an example once over at another company. They have a CRM with all employee duties and who they report to. The president and CEO’s job description looked like this:
    -Final decision maker
    -Reports to all employees
    I know that if I were an employee of this company, then it would be extremely comforting knowing that my boss was on the same team.

  10. I have not read Job’s book yet but I did not feel the need because he came of as such a narcissist as you said. I guess we can learn from both bad and good leadership styles in others. It truly isn’t all about me when in a leadership role.

  11. “One positive or negative word from you can make/ruin someone’s day. Don’t be a butt.”
    If I had a private office, this would be on the back of the door. I always try to temper my critiques with some positive reinforcement of another area.
    You guys should know that the same is true in the SEO world as well…as a little guy when you get singled out for good or bad content/client work/etc. it can make or ruin your day, so if you find someone who is getting their start and you like what they do, give them a hand.
    I’m also a big believer in “The One Minute Manager” philosophy, though I hate the way that book is written. I read it once a year, and give it to all my new hires so they know what to expect.

  12. There is a beautiful fragance that wafts through this post: compassionate detachment. It is one of my favorites, and reliably transforms human interaction. Would you would share how you have developed it in yourself?

    1. That is a great description. Alas, I learned through repetition, and doing a lot of things wrong. Many were the times when I either turned into an ogre or ended up being too ‘nice’, thereby sacrificing whole team for one person. I screw up and move on, I think.

  13. hey good points made here….i agree the people who work for you will do better work without even pushing if they just get a good and comfortable ambiance to work in………you surely can make someones day by few good words

  14. Amazing post, Ian. I always love your more reflective posts like this.
    There is a lot of good stuff in here, but the one thing I hope to never forget is the statement on the power of one word to make/ruin someone’s day. I’m not sure if you intended your statement to reflect the influence a boss has in an office or if you meant it as a more general statement, but I’m taking it as a more general statement that I’ve been thinking about every time I interact with anyone. It has already had such an impact on me that I’ve added it to my favorite quote board along with the sayings of people like Roosevelt, Franklin, and Gandhi.
    Thank you so much for writing this.

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