Rapper and TV star LL Cool J once told an interviewer a funny family story. At the height of his fame as a multiplatinum-selling hip hop star, the young LL regularly visited his grandmother, and every time he’d walk in the door she would greet him with the same welcome: “Take out the garbage!”
One of the most valuable lessons I learned about leadership from my entrepreneur father was the importance of family as a source of grounding and trust. If you are hoping to become a CEO, or a leader in any endeavor, I think you might benefit from hearing these lessons my father taught my siblings and me when we were growing up. We certainly benefited from them — and his lessons are at least partly responsible for why out of seven children, five of us have gone on to lead businesses.
Family is an invaluable part of any life, but it can be particularly important to a leader. That is because as you begin to acquire status, money or any of the other trappings of leadership, you become vulnerable to making lousy decisions because you believe the hype.
Worse, you might find yourself surrounded by “yes” people — always there to remind you of how important and wonderful you are, further distorting your view and increasing your risk of catastrophically bad decisions.
A team of startup co-founders raise millions of dollars from venture capitalists. A newly installed CEO of a successful company gets positive media coverage and is treated like a rock star. Still a teenager, LL Cool J becomes one of the biggest names in music. Without solid grounding influences, every one of these new leaders would be at risk of undermining all their hard work and success by believing they were the most important thing out there, and that every decision they made must therefore be the right one.
But when it comes time to take an honest assessment of where you are in your business or other endeavor, or to make a difficult choice about it, you know who won’t simply tell you what you want to hear? Your family.
As you begin your journey toward leadership, always stay close to your family, seek out their wisdom, and lean on them to keep you grounded. As a CEO myself now, I can tell you that you will enjoy more success, longevity and clear-headedness when you stop seeking out the “You’re great!” comments and instead look for a “Take out the garbage!”
When he repeatedly told my siblings and me how important education was to successful leadership, my father was not just talking about formal education — although he certainly meant that as well.
But for my father, even more important than a college degree was building the habit of lifelong learning. And not just in our chosen field. Dad wanted us to develop a curiosity about everything — business, economics, history, food, advertising, mathematics, you name it.
When you become a leader, no matter in what field, you will find you need to learn about a lot of disciplines outside the core of your enterprise. As he got Amazon off the ground, Jeff Bezos no doubt needed to familiarize himself with many subjects other than the Internet, coding and books. He likely needed to learn something about human resources as he grew his staff. He probably needed to gain an understanding of commercial real estate as he expanded his facilities. And he might even have needed to learn a little about psychology as he tried to figure out how to attract the best people to his team.
If you think of education as a chore, my father taught us, you will find it extremely difficult each time you need to learn a new subject. That will almost certainly hamper your ability to succeed as a leader, because in that position you will be confronted regularly with new, often complex subjects.
No matter how far into the future your plans are to become a CEO or other type of leader, you should start developing a love of learning now. If you don’t think you could ever love to learn, just start learning something new anyway — maybe grab an introductory economics book, or go online and watch video course on coding. I promise you, once you start learning, you will begin to enjoy the process.
3. Work at a Young Age
Another necessary component to success as a leader is a strong work ethic. We tend to glamorize CEOs and other public leaders — seeing only magazine photos or TV clips of them in their dazzling office suites, at star-studded parties or on their yachts. But what you won’t see unless you work with one of these people is that they tend to be the first ones into the office every morning, and the last ones to turn off their computer and their brain at night.
The best way to develop a strong work ethic, my father explained, is to start working as soon as you are able. When you’re young, this almost certainly means taking menial and often boring jobs — serving food, moving furniture, or working in a retail store, for example.
But just as with learning, even if you really don’t want or need to start working at a low-paying, entry-level job, you will be doing your future self a great service by taking one of these jobs anyway. Every day you work in any job is another day you are strengthening those “work muscles” that you will need if you hope to rise to a position of leadership.
4. Love Your Work
This was one of the most challenging of my father’s lessons for me. I loved learning. But for a long time growing up I couldn’t understand how I could learn to love work — unless I could find a job doing something I already loved. It always seemed to me that work was something you had to do. Otherwise, why would they have to pay you to show up?
But then I realized how any of us can find something to love in anything we do — jobs included. I started to view my jobs in a larger context, how I was part of a team contributing something to our community of customers or to society in general.
As a bank vice president, for example, I wasn’t just working for a bank. I was helping protect and grow wealth for clients so they could enjoy the fruits of their hard work.
And when I co-founded the real estate crowdfunding site RealtyMogul, I wasn’t just a CEO. I was someone helping individuals gain access for the first time to real estate deals once accessible only to the wealthiest of clients.
Whatever your job, you can connect what you are doing to a larger purpose, and that purpose can help you learn to love what you do. And of course, when you love what you do, you will become better at it, and you will shine — and you’ll be on your way to a leadership role.
5. Be a Leader
Finally, my father taught my siblings and me to be leaders in everything we did. And this might have been the most important lesson of all.
My father did not mean taking control of every situation. He meant leading by example, sharing credit, being inclusive rather than exclusive, showing integrity in everything we did, persisting through challenges and setbacks, and getting right back up every time we fell.
Leadership, my father explained, is not about ordering people around. It isn’t about making enormous decisions all the time, either. True leadership is about how you live every minute of your life — working hard, being positive, staying close to your family and friends, learning new things, bringing humility to every situation, and persuading people — never forcing or coercing them — to your side.
I have used these lessons in my path to becoming a CEO, and I know my brothers have as well. I hope you find them useful too.
Thanks, Dad. Great advice.