The 10 Greatest Leadership Lessons of 2017

Leadership. This word can mean a number of different things depending on who you discuss the topic with. To a business owner, the word ‘leadership’ may conjure up the task of managing employees, customers, clients, finances, and growth. For a college student, leadership likely implies how they might position themselves as the front-runner of their class, or a hard worker during an internship. For an employee, it likely means navigating the politics of the workplace, positioning for a raise and/or promotion, plus doing the best job possible in their role.

2017 brought on a lot of opportunity for our entire country, and for me as a business owner to absorb, analyze and decide what it is that we want to see in our leaders, and what we do not want to foster in our business culture (sexual harassment in the workplace--we’re looking at you).

I strive to be the type of leader that is a) respected (not because I breed fear in my team, but because I am one of my team--not on a pedestal above them), b) an expert in my field (not a corporate climber), c) a hard worker (since this shows the most grit), and d) a mentor (fostering leadership-growth in my employees and teammates).

Have I accomplished these goals? Not by a long shot. But, I am ALWAYS striving to be the best version of myself for my team, our clients, and our community.

From that place of reflection and daydreaming for 2018, I wanted to take a moment to provide a rundown of my 10 greatest leadership lessons in 2017.


You catch more flies with honey

If you know me you know that I love to read and listen to audiobooks. I try to be reading one fiction and one non-fiction book about business, leadership, etc. at all times. One of my favorite nonfiction books from the past few years is ‘Yes, Please’, written by the comedian, and incredible human Amy Poehler. At first, I picked it up because, frankly, I was curious about her life and background (superfan here 🙋). What I was pleasantly surprised to find, once I started reading, was that in fact there are quite a bit of business and leadership lessons tucked into her story. The biggest takeaway from the read for me--something I have tried to live up since then--is that nothing in business or in leadership is more important than being kind, having a polite disposition and treating others (and I mean EVERYONE) with respect. Hence the age-old saying ‘you catch more flies with honey’, rings true here. When I look back at my career and professional encounters, I am most proud of the moments where I honored this pledge, and hold the most respect for the leaders I encountered who were kind, respectful and polite. So, YES, PLEASE do be a good human to everyone around you. 🙏

Act the part

You may dispute this leadership lesson; I mean there are lots of super-smart, super-successful business leaders out there who wear jeans and a wrinkled t-shirt every day, right? And for those of you rolling your eyes, I do recognize that business culture is evolving, but I would also argue that the individuals without a care-in-the-world for their physical and verbal presentation are successful in spite of their style, not because of it.

When you go into an appointment with your doctor or hair stylist, do you feel better if that person is wearing professionally appropriate attire, looks you in the eye and appears to have taken the time to be ready for a business setting? If that person shows up in yoga pants, sweats and/or their hair is disheveled (unless you are in a yoga class), would you respect and/or take them seriously? I would argue, no. You would not be as trusting and would be far less likely to want to do business with that person. You want to be taken seriously, right? So act like it. Take the time to present yourself appropriately, speak clearly, make eye contact, and genuinely act like you care.

Empathy is the road less traveled

To me, this may be the hardest lesson I’ve had to learn as a leader. Particularly when watching the finger pointing and hateful rhetoric that’s been highlighted across the political spectrum and media in the last year, I feel now more than ever that anyone in a leadership position NEEDS to focus on operating from a place of empathy, rather than entitlement, ego, and accusation. I often wonder at this juncture in our cultural history how we will be judged by our children. I am committed to being a leader and a parent who leads from the heart, supports and fosters happiness in my teammates, and is willing to admit my mistakes--and learn from them. Are you?

Trust your instinct and good sense

If something doesn’t feel, sound or appear right, it probably isn’t. Studies show that 90% of the time your gut instinct is correct. Yet culturally (at least in the U.S.) we are taught to ignore these indicators and proceed down the path ‘most traveled’, or to stay in a work situation for the wrong reasons because of precedent, politics, safety or fear of change. If you are continually getting a feeling that someone is behaving inappropriately, acting in an unprofessional manner, or attempting to put you or your business in a bad position, you might be correct. In other words, if it looks like a pig and sounds like a pig--it most likely is a pig (bad joke, sorry!).

Don’t be a bully or be bullied

One of the toughest parts of taking on a leadership, management and/or business ownership role is knowing when to be flexible and when to hold your ground. I admittedly struggle with this all the time--even after almost five years of owning a business. The unfortunate reality is that there are those who work hard and treat others with respect in order to succeed in business, and those who bully their way to the top. Oftentimes compromise is necessary and even beneficial, but if you find yourself in a position where you are being pressured into a certain role that is just not you, or being asked to do something against your greater judgment, or being treated with disrespect for your time or lifestyle, just say NO THANK YOU. The only thing that works when dealing with a workplace-bully is holding your ground.

On that note, if you find yourself using bully-tactics in the workplace to get your way and to get stuff done, I urge you to reconsider your tactical approach. This type of behavior only breeds disloyalty, dissatisfaction and a general feeling of ‘yuckiness’. Don’t do it. For more on how to deal with professional bullies (yes, that’s their official title), read this article from Fast Company.

Stay the course

In an entrepreneurial role and/or if you own a small business, there are likely times when you second guess your course and feel like giving up. I know. I’ve been there. I am a serial entrepreneur and I will likely be there again. But a wise woman once told me, “if you don’t know, just wait”, and I have to say truer words have never been spoken. When I read bios about uber-successful business founders, one thing always stands out--for each of them there were moments when they wanted to give up, when they were advised to give up, and when they almost lost everything for their ‘hair-brained idea.’ As a leader, knowing how and when to stay the course can be hard to gauge. So here’s my two cents. If you have a great team, you love your business (or the company you work for), you feel super passionate about the cause and/or your work makes you happy more days than not, stick with it. Leaders lead. Be one.

Clarity and transparency are key

This concept has, in some ways, been tarnished. These days I feel like every other CEO and politician is touting transparency, then failing to follow through on the promise. Committing to leading in this manner is not for the faint of heart. There have been many times I have wished I were a less honest, less transparent and more guarded professional, but I’m not. And at the end of the day, operating from an honest, clear and transparent place with my clients and team has benefited me and my company in the long run.

Speak softly and carry a big stick

I am an unashamed history buff, and President Theodore Roosevelt is one of my favorite historical leaders to refer back to when I am feeling uncertain. He had many flaws, but he was passionate, unafraid and had a vision for our country. His saying ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’, has been a go-to for me as a scrappy entrepreneur. Here’s how I interpret this leadership concept. Being a kind, respectful, soft and fun leader. This is what you should strive for most of the time, but there will be a time (or a few) where establishing your credibility and ‘bossly manner’ will be necessary to your survival. No one listens to a ‘yes’ person. And few people respect a pushover. Like it or not, you’ll need to get some thick skin and stick to your values. To be clear, I am not suggesting that you be a professional bully, but instead, know when you are being bullied and hold your ground.

Copycats aren’t leaders

It can be said that we all copy each other. Whether you’re in marketing (especially in marketing) or own a bakery, a good idea breeds the ground for copycats. I am an idea person. It’s always been my gift and passion. And because of this, there have been many a time that I unwittingly allowed my idea or business model to be copied and reproduced. At first, these experience made me second guess my ability to run a business, lead and most importantly, hurt my ego. But each time I have ended up benefiting from the mishap--as a person, a leader, and a business owner. You want to know why? One simple reason: Those who copy do so because they are not natural leaders. There is something super tempting an simple about taking someone else's good idea and repurposing it for your own gain. I get it. I just don’t believe that true leaders and successful business owners follow this path. You must lead by example, and if your example is missing confidence, originality and independent thought, you will struggle to find the ‘leadership gold’ at the end of the rainbow.  

The only constant is change

The last and final lesson that seemed to be hammered into my mind in 2017 is this. The only constant is change. Our country and the world are constantly changing and evolving. My two-year-old son and five-year-old daughter keep getting older and more independent (in spite of my efforts to freeze their cuteness in time--insert big sigh). The digital marketing world (my business bread and butter) is changing as I type this post. And no, I’m not trying to scare or traumatize you, I just hope to impart the small bit of wisdom I’ve gained over 15 years as a professional, entrepreneur and business owner. So here it is. Get comfortable with discomfort. Only then will you embrace the change that is constantly happening around you. Once you’ve reached this place of enlightenment you will be able to lead more effectively, pivot in the face of adversity, and bask in the glory of your super-amazingly-awesome leadership style (yes, that just got weird).


My final thought is this: Leadership is a work in progress. If there was one way to lead, no one would be a leader. If you didn’t make mistakes along the way, you would have nothing to measure your growth against. So embrace whatever it is that makes you quirky and unique--LEAD with that.


Lis Thomas

Chief Decider at Summary Content Marketing

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