To Lead a Successful Company, Start with Yourself!

We live in an exciting time for entrepreneurs. New technologies and alternative funding options provide unprecedented access to capital, making it possible for anyone with a solid idea and a lot of determination to launch a new business. Shows like Shark Tank and The Profit glorify the everyman innovator as well as the all-powerful (and amply funded) business guru. And it seems like for every über-successful, traditionally managed corporation out there, there is a thriving company that went from fledgling start-up to household name without following any of the “rules”—no prolonged analysis, no business school, no suits, no conformity. 

While the very nature of the modern entrepreneur is changing, the one thing that remains constant is the importance of effective leadership. Because it’s equally true that for every Facebook-style success story, there are countless other ventures that tried and failed. Or a thousand other dreamers with a great idea or a passionate vision but no capability to make something happen. If success can be so easily had, what is holding back those businesses or, more to the point, you? All too often, the missing link is strong leadership and a focus on building a culture around that leadership.   

The Role of Personal Development in Leadership Development 

For the past century, the most astute observers of the business world have been fascinated with one intangible factor that drives a business’s success or failure: effective leadership. Perhaps the most influential figure in advancing leadership-development theory was Napoleon Hill, the motivational author who dedicated 20 years to researching and interviewing the most exceptional people of his time. He chronicled the achievements (and struggles) of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, George Eastman, Alexander Graham Bell, Charles M. Schwab, John D. Rockefeller, and nearly 500 other leaders. He then distilled the wisdom of his research into 13 steps to success, which were the basis of his 1937 book, Think and Grow Rich 

At the crux of his findings was the essential truth that everything starts and stops with your level of personal development. If you were to repeat his study with the most successful business leaders of today—Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Mark Cuban—you would arrive at the same conclusion: Everyone has a level of awareness, and it’s only through building that awareness of ourselves, recognizing our own strengths and weaknesses, and identifying the fear barriers that are holding us back that we can continue to move forward with our lives and our careers.  

The most savvy leaders have a highly attuned level of personal awareness, and they extend this awareness to their teams, both assessing the fear barriers that their employees face and enabling them with the skills to break through them. Once leaders understand their teams’ talents and motivations, they can make strategic decisions about how to maneuver each employee within the organization for maximum results.

Fear barriers are the worries, the questions, the psychological walls we build up as we challenge ourselves to do something new or different. Sometimes we fear the unknown. Sometimes we fear failure. Other people actually fear success and feel apprehensive about the changes—more responsibility, more stress, a higher profile—that can accompany it. Personal development, for anyone, is impossible without the capability to overcome these hurdles. In my motivational workshops, I tell people that they have two options when they identify a fear barrier: They can either face it, learn how to break through, and continue working toward their goal; or they can let it bully them back into safety, and they stop moving forward.  

Successful leaders are able to take action despite their fears, because they have motivation to achieve their goals and enough inspiration—the internal commitment and drive that is the reason they are doing what they’re doing—to pull themselves through their barriers. And they build their company’s culture on those principles, along with a positive outlook that inspires employees to do the same. This type of culture inhibits two major factors that prevent businesses from finding long-term success: an organizational fear of failure and a systemic fear of change. 

How does this play out in the real world? It’s a lesson that everyone can relate to, no matter their job, training, or goals. Take, for example, the sole proprietor who works from home, handles the sales, the bookkeeping, the marketing—everything. That individual still needs to be an effective leader. If you are your own boss, you still need to lead yourself in order to have a successful business and keep growing. The same is true for the corporate manager. Every level of success presents new fear barriers to identify and overcome, and with them, fresh opportunities for personal development. To be an effective leader, of yourself or of a whole company, you need to be aware of what is motivating you and what is holding you back. Great leaders evolve in order to maintain the success they’ve achieved. They use the knowledge they've gained from real-life experiences to create wisdom, and they then pass that wisdom on to their employees.

Why Leadership Often Takes a Backseat 

Business is a numbers game—right? In MBA programs, in investment circles, and even in our popular conception of what defines a successful business, we value financially driven estimates of performance, health, and worth. If you can break even in three years, you’ll make it. If the profits and loss statements are sound, the business is healthy.

But a business’s financial standing is only half the story. The other critical factors that contribute to an entity’s inevitable success or failure don’t appear in the annual report: the quality of leadership and the health of its culture. When I speak to corporations, one of the biggest challenges is pushing them to break through the surface level of jargon—what I refer to as “pink clouds, unicorns, and the Easter bunny”—commonly used to describe corporate culture and get to the meat of what their company’s real-life culture is and how it is shaped.  

The truth is that while firms might tout an exceptional culture to attract new talent, many of today’s companies prioritize numbers-based performance and incentives above all; they turn people into calculations instead of investing in their personal development as long-term assets. Within such cultures, it’s difficult for talented workers to evolve into future leaders and company champions. In these environments, it’s hard for people to be themselves. 

No one understands this disconnect more than Jack Welch, the renowned former CEO of General Electric. In his legendary tenure with GE, the company’s value rose more than 4,000 percent. During a conversation at the 2015 South by Southwest conference, the moderator asked about the biggest mistake he had made in business. Welch’s immediate reply was this: “Fundamentally, I’ve bought businesses based on numbers. We used to buy a business a day, 200 a year. And I made a lot of mistakes by buying based on numbers, not on culture. Numbers aren’t enough.”  

Whether you’re an established business owner or an aspiring entrepreneur, if you are looking to make a change, in the long term the numerical argument will not lead you to success. You need to lead yourself there with motivation, inspiration, and some good old-fashioned perspiration, even in the face of a challenge.