Leadership can be learned (from my mistakes)

If I could rewind time and do all this again, I'd get a psychology degree before starting my first business. 

As it happened, I left school and didn't follow my friends to university because, by then, the web hosting business I had started from my teenage bedroom was taking off, money was coming in, and the entrepreneurial life seemed to have chosen me.

What I didn't realise almost 20 years ago, when I was 18 years old and hiring my first employees, was that good leadership has everything to do with emotional intelligence - something I didn’t have yet.

Without it, I made mistakes because I wrongly assumed people were all motivated by the same things that motivate me. And I thought perks like free food in the office, or opportunities to progress within the business, outweighed being paid well.

It took me years to realise that to lead you need a very stable foundation. That foundation comes only when you know, love and trust yourself. 

While we can be inspired by great leaders in business and from history, I think great leadership can only come from the authentic self.

When I look back at my leadership style, I can see that my wrestles with myself and my ego must have been very confusing and difficult for early employees as I struggled to figure out who I was.

What I did have going for me was an urge to be better and do better. That desire to improve and be self-critical is paramount to anyone who hopes to lead successfully.  

The first breakthrough I had was to give myself the space to be a leader, rather than just a manager. I did that by changing my approach to recruitment.

I became very, very picky - painfully so. If you refine your people selection skills like your life depends on it, leadership becomes almost easy. If you don't have the right people, you'll be constantly pulled back down into management, not leadership.    

The second breakthrough I had was to not over-glorify the concept of leadership. Just do right by your people, and gently encourage belief in your concept by communicating your own. 

By doing this you get followers and – if you’ve seen American entrepreneur Derek Sivers' short TED Talk How To Start A Movement – you’ll know that every true leader needs at least one follower.

Sivers explains: "If you really care about starting a movement, have the courage to follow and show others how to follow."

The final breakthrough I had was to be generous. I used to control salaries like my life depended on it but, all too often, this resulted in talented people walking away from the business for a small pay increase elsewhere.  

I just hadn't figured out that you have to be generous with salary in order to create one less reason for people to feel the need to move on. For my business, this has made a huge difference to turnover and calibre.

My last piece of advice is to keep teaching yourself. Read books by people you admire, watch the wealth of content for leaders on YouTube and listen hard to advice, from wherever it comes.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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