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Lessons from 50 years in business

How much can leaders do to control and motivate? This and other career lessons from Wally Bock.

4 min read


Lessons from 50 years in business


Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by Wally Bock.

In 1968, I left the Marines and started my business career. Like just about everybody starting out, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Like others, I had decades of leading and learning ahead of me. Here are some of the things I learned.

Planning has limitations. Planning is important, it’s a way that you head off mistakes and assess the possibility of success. But no plan survives the first contact with reality. The most effective planning suggests unintended consequences and things to watch for.

Human beings are awful at making accurate predictions. I started out with the idea that with enough equations, facts and insight, you could ensure success. I learned that was folly. Adapting to reality is the key skill to pair with just enough good planning.

A growth mindset increases the odds of your success and makes life sweeter. I started out with a full-blown commitment to proving that I was good, having the right answer, being the one who knew. Before I discovered Carol Dweck’s research, I had already learned that a commitment to improvement rather than to demonstrating competence made things better.

We learn best by trying and learning from experience. We help others learn best by letting them try first. My mentor, Leonard Tompkins, taught me that. Every time I wanted to learn how to do something, he had me try it first, and he wouldn’t help me until I’d already gone as far as I could.

It took me a long time to learn that you can’t motivate people. My mother told me that back when I was a teenager. “People will do what they think is best,” she said, “You can’t make them do anything.” More than a decade after I started in business, I read some of the research by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan and learned that Mom was right.

We talk about leaders being “in control.” We don’t really control much. All we have to work with are what we say and do. No power, just influence. And that’s enough.

Early in my career, I was cast as a rising star. Back then, I was a “fast-tracker.” Today, they’d call me a “High Potential” or “HiPo.” Because people thought that, and because I was both smart and ambitious, I wound up in positions where I was in way over my head. That led to some failure and some very painful learning.

In the Marines, I learned to evaluate both successes and failures, and I continued to do that in business. The failures stayed in my memory longer, but I learned most from my successes. I know that’s not conventional wisdom, but learning what worked for me was more helpful.

It took me a while to learn that my personal recipe for success was to make enough money doing something I love with people I like. Over the course of my life, I’d get seduced by the promise of high rewards and wind up doing something that I really didn’t like. I got it wrong the other way, too. I took a job with a nonprofit even though it didn’t pay much, but the stress of not making enough money made me crazy.

I’ve tracked my productivity for decades. I learned that I’m most productive and happiest when I care for myself. I must get enough sleep and exercise. I should eat sensibly and allow for recovery time.

I started out with a career plan, but that plan didn’t survive contact with reality. The major successes of my life mostly came from opportunities I couldn’t anticipate, let alone plan for. I pursued all kinds of opportunities. Some of them were grand, others didn’t pan out. But instead of a career path, I’ve got a collection of enthusiasms and experiences. 


Wally Bock is an award-winning leadership author and blogger. His leadership ebooks include “Become a Better Boss One Tip at a Time” and “Now You’re the Boss: Making the Most of the Most Important Transition in Business.” Follow Bock at his Three Star Leadership blog or on Twitter.

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