Why There Is No Such Thing As A Leadership "Best Practice"

Successful execs have wildly different leadership styles—and trying to emulate them will only pull you in different directions. Here's how to find your own way.

Leadership cannot really be taught, it can only be learned.—Harold S. Geneen

I get hit up for advice on every startup subject imaginable. “What’s the best way to raise capital from your family?” or “What’s the best new app for staying on top of social media?”

Not long ago, someone asked me what I thought the best type of leadership is. I thought about it for a while. I considered my own leadership style and what it would be called, but I couldn’t give a straight answer. The truth is, I don’t know the answer.

The bigger truth, though, is that you shouldn’t ask that question in the first place—because no one else knows, either.

It’s not that I mind giving advice. On the contrary, I enjoy helping budding entrepreneurs and I still have (and will forever have) mentors of my own from whom I constantly seek advice. The thing that people tend to forget, though, is that no piece of advice is universal. Since every situation is unique, there will always be trial and error involved. The term “best practice” then, in my opinion, is a fallacy that misleads many young entrepreneurs.

One person’s best practice is another person’s practice in futility. There’s no singular set of definitive rules for living, working, or anything else in life—and leadership is no different.

When Harold Geneen, former president of the ITT Corporation, said that leadership can only be learned, not taught, he meant that experience trumps theory every day of the week and twice on Sunday. I happen to agree with that, wholeheartedly.

If you want to know what the best style of leadership is, examine some of the most highly revered and successful leaders (from Jobs to Zuckerberg to Bezos and beyond), and you'll see significant contrasts. As a result, you could easily get pulled in two very distinct directions in terms of how to conduct your own leadership efforts. But as long as you make attempts to lead, you’ll find out what works and what doesn't work.

So maybe the real way to determine a "best practice" for yourself is this: Look at what others do well, and then do something to try it out yourself. You’ll have some successes and many more failures, but at least you’ll learn what works best for your situation, your company or startup, and yourself as an individual.

In terms of my own leadership, I start by communicating the history of our company (where we've been and what we've learned), then I communicate the vision for our future (where we're going). I define our company's core values (what we stand for), and then I empower and engage with my team to make decisions that are in line with our vision and values. And I ask questions of myself and of my team to ensure that we are following the right path forward.

Let’s say, for example, I have to make a decision that will greatly impact the company. First, I interrogate myself. I ask myself if a particular decision is in line with my company’s vision. I ask whether the decision is good for the customer and if it is ethical. I ask whether it is in line with our core values, and among other questions, “If I was working for Nick Friedman, would I be OK with this decision?”

If I can answer these questions with an honest “Yes,” then I turn to my team. I ask them if they think the decision furthers our company’s progress toward our shared vision, if they can get it done, and if they’re motivated to see it through to the end.

Through these questions, I gauge my team’s willingness to accomplish the tasks I put on their plate or that they bring to the table themselves, which is generally aligned with their talents and whether the task falls under a particular team member’s strengths.

If, in the end, I decide to go for whatever the hypothetical decision is, then there are an endless number of other questions I ask and measures I take to ensure its success.

The point I’m trying to make is not to replicate these steps. It’s that you should question your own decision making and leadership. Are you a visionary leader who inspires and motivates your team by painting a picture of the future? Are you a controlling dictator who must have his or her finger on the pulse of every decision made?

Constantly play devil's advocate. “Is there a better way to be handling this particular situation?” you might ask. “Is this beneficial for this company, this team, and at this time?"

Although it's a good stepping stone, you won't find the answer in the styles or advice of your mentors and heroes. At the end of the day, you're going to have to take all that advice with enough grains of salt to obliterate a 30-foot slug from outer space.

If you really want to be a better leader, figure out what works for you—and once you’ve found some answers, be careful not to pass them off to the next young entrepreneur as “best practices.”

—Nick Friedman is president and cofounder of College Hunks Hauling Junk and College Hunks Moving, the largest and fastest growing U.S.-based junk removal and moving franchise opportunities. He started the business in college with his best friend in a beat up cargo van, and now has at least 50 locations nationwide.

The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only nonprofit organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and email lessons.

[Image: Flickr user Jenny Downing]

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2 Comments

  • Charles M Cawley

    This is a second rate article expressing a very conservative and out of date attitude; you should know better and we deserve better.  You quote Harold Geneen: "that leadership can only be learned, not taught."  Although this is true in many circumstances this sort of approach is often used to deliberately refuse or simply fail to address major challenges.  It has been used to close down discussion and learning about how the political information landscape can be revealed, and postively controlled.  We all know of the existence of office and business politics, it is part of the very nature of organisations.  We all know when the potentially useful and positive device is abused, wrecks productivity and makes the working lives of millions an unnecessary misery.  But when anyone says it can be taught the three classic put downs are trotted out:  'You cannot teach leadership'; 'politics are nasty and negative so they should be ignored' (and they will just go away?); and the biggest lie: 'politics does not exist in our company so you do not need to learn anything about them'.  You can teach some astonishing useful tools to reveal politics and turn them to the positive: truth.  Politics are part of the nature of organisations and ignoring them is un American and the ultimate negative no can do: truth.  All organisations have politics as part of their nature, to deny this is either a lie, delusion, denial or testament to incompetence: truth.  Many aspects of leadership can be taught; you and Geneen are plain wrong.  At least you could scrap the delusion that key aspects of leadership cannot be taught.  They can.  One final thing:  the clever manager knows that learning well can give them the benefit of many lifetimes experiences with learning time telescoped into days instead of many years of hard won experience.  Of course there are some things which are best learnt by experience, but to deny that key aspects cannot be taught is a recipe for time wasting and, often, failure. 

  • Chris Reich

    Style perhaps cannot be taught but certainly substance can. In my practice I identify areas of opportunity and let the style of my client decide the approach to execute.

    Chris Reich, BizPhyZ