Leadership Aphorisms

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Years ago, I began collecting leadership aphorisms (sayings). These helped me stay grounded as I struggled with the daily grind of running a company. They also reminded me of the best practices and strategies I had learned in my CEO coaching.

Here are some of my favorite leadership aphorisms.

You Get What You Tolerate

If you tolerate bad behavior, you will get more of it. Stop bad behaviors as they happen. This includes your own behaviors.

I had an employee who would routinely use four-letter obscenities in front of customers and co-workers. I tolerated it since I said these same words on occasion. Unsurprisingly, there was more swearing. It was not until a customer said they did not hire us because they felt the swearing employee was rude and unprofessional that I put a stop to it…for myself and the employee.

Hire Slowly, Fire Quickly

Hiring an employee is a large commitment. You must be sure the person fits your culture. Even with the chaotic hiring environment do not rush a hire. Have a hiring process and stick to it.

However, if a person is not working out, then you need to face a harsh truth: it is best for them and the company that they leave. Hanging on and trying to rescue a failing employee may feel like a decent thing to do, but it only drags out the inevitable. Moreover, underperforming and toxic employees do far more damage than you realize. They not only do not do their job, they make it more difficult for everybody else to do theirs.

Whatever brief discomfort the company feels with that person’s departure will quickly fade.

Start with the End in Mind

The more clearly you can define, describe, and quantify an outcome, the more likely you will achieve it (or something similar.) Also, if you can keep people focused on the future, they will be less distracted with the stress, frustration, and fear of the present.

Failing to Plan is a Plan to Fail

People who fail to plan will turn an entirely predictable failure into an entirely unnecessary emergency.

This is a frequent problem with product development. If you fail to precisely define what the next version of a product will be, it is easy to keep pushing the deadlines out indefinitely.

Hope is Not a Strategy

You cannot hope for success. When people hope, they are being passive and placing success into the hands of fate. To succeed, you must be an active participant in the game.

Do not hope for success. Plan or intend for success.

I used to hear “I hope to close that deal this week” a lot in sales meetings. I would actively shut down that language and require people to restate the sentence as “I plan to close that deal this week.” It annoyed people, but it also enforced a culture of taking responsibility for your actions and outcomes.

I Did Not Know What to Do, So I Did Nothing

Aphorisms can also come in the form of intolerables, that is things you should not do. This was one.

When you are unsure what to do, doing nothing is seldom the right thing. Do something. Do anything. You cannot learn or grow from nothing. Even a bad response, which fails, is better than none.

Do Not Take Advice on How to Accomplish Something, From People Who Have Accomplished Nothing

Be selective with the advice you receive. Not all advice is meaningful or relevant. Be especially suspect of advice from people who have not been a founder before. This is especially true of investors, who often believe their access to money grants them expertise into running a business. It does not.

Start with Why

This is taken from Simon Sinek’s famous 2009 video. Before you jump into any large effort, you must be able to explain why you are doing it. As Sinek points out, organizations that can clearly define their purpose are consistently more successful.

What Annoys You is Your Greatest Teacher

People who annoy you provide an invaluable window into your own personality. Look past the person and their personality, and reflect on why you are annoyed. You will discover a lot about yourself.

For example, small talk annoys me. When I reflected upon this with a CEO coach, he called me a “transactional leader” which means I value results over relationships. Many people are the opposite. Small talk is important. It is how they build and validate relationships. This annoyance taught me a lot about myself and how to be a more effective leader.

Questions Beat Answers

Before you tell people what to do, ask them what they think or what their intent is. Be curious. Ask what, how, and when questions. Avoid why questions, as they can feel like an accusation.

Curiosity is an extremely powerful tool for leaders. It leads people to what needs to be done, without the negative effects of telling them what to do.

Success is Born in Failure

Mistakes, errors, and failures will teach you more about how to succeed, than any success will. Aggressively analyze your failures and face what you did wrong. This is the essence of a growth mindset.

This is especially true for sales. If you lose a deal, it is vital you find out why you lost, so you can correct weaknesses.

When there is Success, Look Out the Window; When there is Failure, Look in the Mirror

This is a reminder to share success with your team. However, when there is a failure, reflect on your own behavior and actions. Take responsibility for the failure and work to get better.

Less is More

Intelligent, confident, in-control people are concise and decisive. Get to the point.

I also used another version of this aphorism: the more you talk, the stupider you sound.

Perseverance Furthers

This was my father’s advice for most situations. He got it from the I Ching, an ancient Chinese book of proverbs. This simple aphorism got me through a lot of dark times.

All challenges and problems have a solution. You may not know the answer, yet. Persevere and the answers will emerge in time.


While these aphorisms do not solve all leadership challenges they can help. I hope…er…I intend for them to help you. 😊

These and more are part of my forthcoming book: The Founder’s User’s Manual: Everyday Strategies for Startup Leaders.



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