As a kid, I thought that being a leader was easy. It was all about how to ensure that my friends followed what I told them to do on every occasion. Whether it was on the football field, basketball court, playground park, or any other school activities.

However, as I am getting older, especially after I entered the life phase as a professional, I faced so many difficult situations where sometimes I doubt my leadership skill and capability. What was once seems a natural ability to lead, suddenly became a disastrous trait that ended with so many wrong decisions and regrets.

Still, I have learned countless valuable things from all those mistakes and uncomfortable situations, but here are five leadership lessons that I have learned the hard way, especially in the past five years:

  1. Understanding my leadership style should have been my number one priority. Realizing that I am a macro manager who put an emphasis on a democratic and participative style of leadership should have been the foundation of my self-awareness. Failed to recognize this in the first place brought me to a disaster of hiring the wrong people into my team, which resulted in high turnover and low morale of the team.
  2. Hiring the right people who would fit in with my leadership style is the key to building a solid team. After I have a clear understanding of my leadership style, it is practically easier for me to define what kind of people who could flourish under my direct supervision. Those are the individuals with their unique personalities, but they have the same thing in standard, which is a high level of accountability, willingness to learn new things, and comfortability to work in a demanding, fast-paced, and constantly changing work environment (in a positive way). In short, a contributor with a can-do attitude.
  3. Acting as a jerk is necessary (sometimes). No more Mr. Nice Guy for those low performers. Regular performance review every quarter would address what would be required to change and what are things that should be improved. If the laid-back approach did not work, it is entirely OK for me to become a jerk leader, just to ensure those low performers got the message — loud and clear.
  4. Trying to please everybody is not part of a leader’s responsibility. No matter how hard I have tried to make a thoughtful and considerate decision based on their situation, I would never please everybody on my team. Bill Cosby said it best, “I do not know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” So rather than spending my energy to make everybody happy, I should have focused more of my time and effort into making a decision which would benefit the company in the long term.
  5. The best leadership principle was taught by Ki Hajar Dewantara more than 70 years ago. The leading Indonesian independence movement activist, politician, and pioneer of education for native Indonesians in Dutch colonial times, Ki Hajar Dewantara was well known for his famous proverb in the Javanese language, “Ing ngarso sung tulodo, ing madyo mangun karso, tut wuri handayani.” Which translates, “(for those) in front should set an example, (for those) in the middle should raise the spirit, and (for those) behind should give encouragement.” — even though the proverb was used in the educational context, but it is still valid until today to describe a simple principle that I believe is the true essence of being a leader.

We can learn everything we need to know in theory about leadership, but all those arguments would be useless if we do not know how to implement them in real life.

Leadership can be taught, but on the other hand, I also believe that leadership is far better learned through various experience in our working lives. Learning by doing. Trial and error. Not afraid to make mistakes, as long as we learned from the past errors and ensured those same mistakes would not happen again in the future.

That long, bumpy, and probably painful process will mold ourselves as the better leaders in the future. After all, a smooth sea will never make a skilled sailor, or in this case a capable leader.

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Haryo Utomo Suryosumarto

is a Certified Master Coach of Engage & Grow, an organization which operates in more than 80 countries worldwide, with a vision to create a globally engaged workforce, one employee at a time. He has helped business leaders in various industries, such as retail, consulting, consumer goods, technology, and manufacturing, to increase the employee engagement level at their respected companies by an average increment of 184%. Haryo is also the Founder & Managing Director of PT Headhunter Indonesia, an executive search company based in Jakarta, Indonesia.