A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com.
It’s been quite a year for leadership lessons. Any one of a multitude of events in 2012 (Hurricane Sandy, The London Olympics, Benghazi and its fallout) would provide a case study in how to lead – and sometimes, sadly, how not to.
Here are my personal top 5 leadership lessons from 2012:
Institutionalize your V-ness
Yes, it’s over a year since he died, but Steve Jobs was still handing out leadership lessons in 2012.
The question everyone began asking almost immediately his sad, early death was announced was “Will Apple survive the loss of its Visionary founder?”. This year showed that, while the jury is still out as to whether it will be exactly the same company or not, Apple isn’t going to disappear any time soon: far from it.
Unlike CEOs at companies such as Starbucks, Gateway, Dell and yes – even Apple itself, first time around, when Jobs was booted in favor of John Sculley – Steve Jobs clearly succeeded in institutionalizing his vision by driving it deep into the very warp and woof of the company and instilling it into Apple’s management DNA.
Howard Schultz, for example, hasn’t yet achieved this at Starbucks – he’s still the personification of ‘his’ company’s vision.
Are you the personification of your company’s vision? If you left, would it leave too? Or have you hired, mentored and coached your vision into the company, so that it would stand without you?
Remember that big does not necessarily mean important
It’s hard to remember the degree of hoop-la that surrounded the Facebook IPO back in May. I mean Mayan-calendar-the-world-is-ending hoop-la.
And that very fact – that something so highly anticipated could turn out to be such a fizzle – is a lesson in itself: ‘Big’ does not necessarily equal ‘important’.
Take a look at the big things that have your attention. Are any of them merely ‘big’ – but are actually unimportant? If so, chances are you could save a lot of leadership resource by dumping that project.
Remember that plans are nothing, but planning is everything
That the Mars Rover landing of ‘Curiosity’ in August was an incredible feat of technical skill is undoubted (if you haven’t watched the NASA video, I urge you to do so).
Hidden in the story – lurking behind the technical pyrotechnics – is a story of leadership in the face of almost-unbelievable uncertainty.
Often missed in the retelling of Curiosity’s landing is the fact that no-one at NASA could do a single thing about the outcome. Once the landing module had begun its descent, everything – every tiny movement, every one of the millions of microscopic adjustments – was being made by pre-programmed software.
No-one back at NASA HQ had their hands on a joystick, no-one could change even a millimeter of the module’s direction. Either everything worked out OK, or it didn’t – there was no way to adjust on the fly. In the end, all those plans were essentially meaningless.
As Mike Tyson has said: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched on the nose.” In leadership, often our plans turn out to be close to useless. But planning? Planning is what put Curiosity on Mars. It can get you anywhere you want to go.
Don’t do deals you don’t understand
The ongoing, 4-year HP debacle turned almost cartoonish with November’s announcement that HP is to write off $9bn (yes, that’s a ‘b’) of its investment in Autonomy – a company for which it paid $12bn only in October 2011.
There’s still a lot to be written about this fiasco, but one thing is immediately obvious: no-one on the HP side, from then-CEO Leo Apotheker to the three firms of auditors involved (and including the entire board) knew what the heck they were buying. It looked good, it filled a strategic vacuum, and it was available, so they did the deal.
You’d think only very large companies with access to gobs of cash fall for this type of stupid transaction, but sadly I’ve seen founder/owners and small business owners bet the ranch – and fail – many times. As my grandmother would say, “If you don’t understand it, don’t do it.”
Finally, as the year closes out, we’re watching perhaps the biggest failure of leadership of our time play out. As the United states hurtles closer to fiscal impact (we fell off the fiscal cliff quite some time ago), political leaders of all stripes have abdicated the only thing we ask of them – leadership.
The #1 leadership lesson of 2012? Lead, for goodness sake. It’s your job.