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From Professor to Serial Entrepreneur to CEO, Here’s What I’ve Learned About Leadership

Via LinkedIn : Good leadership has never been more important than it is today—in all industries and at all levels. There are many different elements that shape the 21st century leader: the rapid pace of technological change, the increasing competitiveness of the US workforce, and the amplified call for more and more accountability at the top, just to name a few. With the stakes so high, it’s important to develop a fundamental understanding of what makes a leader stand out, and the qualities that make him or her effective in the leadership role.

Leadership has no cookie-cutter approach, and I, personally, have never attended B school. Every leader comes to the position along a specific and personal path—with highs, lows, and teachable moments along the way. As a professor, a serial entrepreneur, and the founding CEO of edX, I’ve ridden the leadership rollercoaster a few times now. I have made what I now realize were serious mistakes in each of my leadership stints, but each experience has taught me that there are a few essential elements to good leadership.

The following are eight rules that I inform my personal leadership style:

Think big and then think even bigger. There are a lot of ideas out there today and it takes a big one to get through the clutter. Make sure it scales and always aim high.
Be as engaged as you ask others to be. Today, 24/7 is the new normal and there can be an expectation to be on all the time. However, you can’t ask people to do things you are unwilling to do yourself. Lead by example. For example, do not ask for your team members for their cellphone numbers if you are uncomfortable sharing yours.
Stick to stick-to-itiveness (and inspire others to do the same). Leadership is tough, plain and simple. It requires a big dose of tenacity, complete devotion and a lot of difficult decisions along the way. Be obsessive. It’s not only your level of perseverance that matters, but also how you ignite that same passion in others so that your team becomes your force multiplier.
Get into deep levels of detail in at least a few areas, but become comfortable with delegating. Leaders need to deeply understand the details of a few key elements, but not the minutiae of everything. Attract, trust, and depend on good people who will help you cover all the bases. In particular, get totally comfortable with hiring people who are much better than you are.
Hold your organization to high standards. People are motivated by challenge. If something is easy, or has been retread time and time again, there’s no excitement in winning. That’s no fun. Give your staff something to shoot for, and push them to be even better than they themselves imagine.
Never be shy about praise. If you’ve hired good people, there will be plenty of opportunity to show your appreciation. Always be honest, of course, but praise can be an extremely powerful motivator. And, if you’re sticking to Rule 5 (shooting high) then that praise will be doubly meaningful when given.
Recognize and acknowledge weaknesses. No organization is perfect, and every project has its limitations. It’s important to strike that fine balance between setting high standards and being honest about what just won’t work at the moment. This is more art than science. But by being honest and acknowledging where we could be stronger as an organization, we can begin to shape solutions that will overcome these limitations.
Personal relationships are important. Invest in personal friendships with your team. This builds trust and goodwill, which are critical to business negotiations and collaboration. You will find that everything goes smoother and faster when people on teams trust and like each other.

These rules have helped guide my leadership approach over the years. Do I always manage to execute them flawlessly? Certainly not. But like every dedicated leader, I strive to be the best I can be every day (and where I fall down is the subject for another post entirely).

It’s important to keep in mind that good leaders should always reflect on past experiences and evolve to meet the growing demands of their organizations. They understand their weaknesses, so they can watch out for common traps. The increasingly interconnected and fast-paced world in which we live demands it.

How do you lead and what leadership traits to you find most effective and collaborative?

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