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8 Leadership Lessons from Billionaires

Being rich doesn’t mean you’re wise, and it doesn’t mean you’re good. All it means for sure is that you’re rich.

With that caveat firmly in place, let me share some of my favorite leadership tidbits. I’ve gathered these nuggets of wisdom from some of our most famous business leaders with the notion that you can learn something from anyone. Often, all you need is one truly useful lesson, not the person’s entire worldview. Some people on this list fall into that category.

Titles don’t mean squat.

John Rockefeller never owned controlling interest in Standard Oil, and his official job title was vice president. Yet his partners deferred to him in all things. Why? Because they knew this Robber Baron’s business savvy was what was making them rich, and they were lucky to have him. I meet with leadership teams all the time, and I love to gauge the room for all the unspoken cues that tell me who the real leader is. It’s only occasionally the guy or gal with the title.

Promote talent to partner.

Think about your organization. Think about all the levels between the C-suite and the frontline workers. Now think about what life would be like if the CEO regularly elevated a particularly excellent worker-bee past all the managers, directors, vice presidents, and Chief-you-name-it-Officers to make them her peer. Sound unimaginable? Well, not to Andrew Carnegie, another Robber Baron who vied with Rockefeller for status as World’s Wealthiest Person. If you want a little success, don’t do this. If you want massive success, make this a regular part of how you do business. Elevate your talent before your competitor does.

Make decisions in 15 minutes or less. Then move on.

I’m not advising you to emulate Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle, in most ways. But I really admire this one thing he is alleged to do. You may have noticed that Oracle buys a lot of companies – seems like ten a week, though that may be exaggeration. Story has it that Ellison will discuss a potential purchase with his staff for fifteen minutes, never more. They’ll either decide to buy or decide not to. Then, it’s on to the next topic. What could you accomplish if you took his cue and limited all your decisions to fifteen minutes?

Don’t gamble. Invest.

Warren Buffett is probably America’s most-beloved billionaire. Barring any skeletons in his closet I’m not aware of, this man is living proof that good karma is, indeed, very good business. And one of the many things he does that I admire is, he doesn’t buy stocks for a short-term gain and then sell them for a quick profit. Instead, this leader buys companies – to own. He isn’t a leech on the system, as so many speculators are. He’s a businessman. Full stop.

Work on your business, not in your business.

Richard Branson is my favorite example for what this saying means. Very early in his business career, Branson stopped going to the office and began holding meetings on his houseboat, away from headquarters. Often, he would just pick someone’s brain one-on-one for an hour or more, without interruption – and without interrupting his staff, either. This move doesn’t get the prominence it deserves in the Virgin story, but I’m absolutely convinced it’s how he built a teenager’s magazine experiment into an empire that today includes more than 400 distinct businesses. Owners, this is for you: let your staff do what you hired them to do, and get your hands off daily operations! It worked for Branson because he has attracted the right people, professionals he could trust to run his companies, and then he trusted them to run them!

Pay your fair share of taxes. It’s your duty as a citizen.

That’s Buffett again. See why I love the guy? How many business leaders do you know today who talk about duty and the moral imperative of good citizenship – or any moral imperative, for that matter?

Respect people. Love them, even!

That’s Oprah Winfrey. You can really tell she just plain likes people – all kinds of people. No one could fake a deep and abiding care for others that much for that long: signs would show if she were faking it. Oprah does not love people because that’s good for business. She’s good at business because she loves people. How do you feel about your fellow human?

Have fun.

In business as in life, if it isn’t fun you’re doing it wrong. I’ll defer to Branson again for this one. The man is pretty much always jolly, isn’t he? I can’t even say his name without smiling! Heck, he even named his business Virgin because, as he put it, “We were virgins at business.” How fun is that? People want to be around Richard Branson, to soak up some of his optimism, joy, and sense that life is one great adventure – this desire includes folks who buy from him, invest in him, and working for him!!

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