After three decades as a CEO in various organizations there are definitely distinct lessons I’ve learned.

1. When we focus on what we have to give instead of what we get we realize our value.

Why should someone work with, do business with, hire you, or spend time with you? And why now? If you can’t answer these questions your constituents won’t know either. What makes you distinctive? What do your employees need from you to thrive in their roles? What do your customers need that they haven’t even realized yet? This probing leads to a solid value proposition that gives you fulfillment and can be communicated in your messaging.

Don’t wait for a crisis to probe for opportunity. Anticipate the needs of others, how you will uniquely meet those needs and you stand alone.

2. When we are curious and compassionate, we become servant leaders instead of command and control tyrants.

We all know leaders whose direct reports fear them. And we know leaders who are revered. Your leadership starts with an open awareness of yourself and a dedication to improve – improve yourself, improve the work experience for others, improve the products and services you offer, improve the financial stability of your organization. This service mindset requires a mindful acceptance of yourself without judgment followed by a curious mindset.

Ask questions without making assumptions. That creates space for honesty and humility while dismissing the need for perfection. Your team wants to know that you struggle with the same things they do. It is relatable to be human.

3. There is power in having your boss’s back. Find a way to do that or go somewhere you can. Don’t stay and poison yourself and the culture.

Don’t be a victim or a toxin. It strips your executive presence, stagnates your career and is weak. If you are unhappy in your role you have three choices: 1) Find another position and leave. Make sure the problem is not your perspective which you will carry with you to a new role and still be unhappy; 2) Stay where you are, shift your perspective and focus not on office politics but where you can find fulfillment in new responsibilities; 3) Leave and go somewhere more in alignment with your values. It will take you a while to achieve the level where you are now but accept that if this choice fulfills you. Don’t do what complainers do – quit and stay.

4. Good people leave organizations because of bad managers who don’t position them to learn and advance. Mediocre people leave organizations for $1 more an hour, free lunch and a pool table in the break room.

Organizations are acutely aware of onboarding costs for new employees. Retention has become one of the most important focuses for corporate human resources departments. Most major consulting companies and large organizations have created elaborate coaching programs, scheduled feedback systems and shadowing arrangements to retain and position top talent. Benefits packages have become less important than the skill of leadership in recognizing the unique aptitude of each individual and positioning them with professional development opportunities that interest them.

5. ‘A’ people hire ‘A’ people, ask for their insight, and get out of their way. ‘B’ people hire ‘C’ people and micromanage them.

Leaders sometimes get caught in the trap of thinking they must understand everything everyone is doing. Not so. Hire people who have your weaknesses as their strengths. Then allow them to create. Ask questions to understand and challenge their perspective. Never feel threatened by them. If their posturing creates insecurity, coach around that to help them understand the effects of their behavior.

6. Emotional leaders hardly ever advance. Practice a good poker face.

Self-management is essential for a high performing leader. It starts with self-awareness and self-acceptance. Mindful daily practices that keep you in the moment such as meditation, deep breathing, creative projects, help to increase your awareness of your thoughts and your power over them. The goal is to increase the space between when you feel an emotion and act on it so that the choice is not to react but to remain calm, think through the assumption behind the emotion and release it.

7. Narcissistic leaders thrive on keeping their teams in chaos and fear so that nobody notices their ineptness. Stay off their radar screen by making sure they know you have their back, giving them all the glory and presenting your work with confidence so they can trust it. Then work on your exit strategy. Things will not get better.

It is no mystery how narcissistic leaders rise to power. They are charismatic, have certainty and people trust their confidence. Yet they lack integrity, a moral compass, and any semblance of collaboration or compassion. This makes them dangerous. You know you are dealing with a narcissistic leader if you liked them at first but something in your gut tells you that you can’t trust them. You feel as if you must be overly cautious in what you say and do. Over time you find that you are questioning your own relevance around them because they are more of a dictator than a seeker of alignment. Pacify them with complete honesty, good work, relevance, and trust. Then move on.

8. When we can look ourselves in the eye and not expect to be perfect, we give ourselves room to be human and walk in the shoes of others. When we try on a lot of different shoes, we become grateful that they are not all the same size.

Perfectionism kills careers. Done is better than perfect. Humility trumps being right. Humanity is diverse. And diversity adds perspective. Perspective only brings value when we hear it. We can’t hear it if it isn’t in the room. We won’t apply new ideas if we are married to the assumption that change compromises our own security. What we believed yesterday need not be what we carry forward today. The agile leader with grit who can adapt mid cycle opens to opportunity. The stuck leader stagnates and loses ground.   

9. Executive presence is the ability to observe yourself from a third-party perspective and admire what you see.

The single biggest reason people don’t advance in their careers is because they feel they are not worthy – they don’t belong. Coincidentally, the single biggest reason people are unhappy is because they feel they are not worthy and don’t belong. So, to counter this achievers often misguidedly spend time and energy on the treadmill to nowhere working harder, reading self-help books, updating their resumes, firing off online applications, taking classes, only to find that nothing changes except now they are exhausted. Seeking fulfillment externally on issues that are internally motivated is not productive. Executive presence and confidence expand when we challenge our internal assumptions against what is actually true about ourselves. Here we begin to align with our values. There is much there to admire when the dust of business settles and the brilliance of clarity appears.    

For more executive presence tips here is a link to Mary Lee’s 31 Executive Presence Practices for Leaders in the Corporate World.

Mary Lee Gannon, ACC, CAE has a unique perspective as an award winning certified executive coach, author and 19-year corporate CEO who helps leaders have more effective careers, happier lives and better relationships while it still matters. She is the founder of, a coaching and consulting firm that helps leaders position their mindful impact – the same impact that took her from welfare to CEO of organizations worth up to $26 million. Schedule a call or get her free leadership tools at