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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

4 Rules the Most Successful Leaders Live By

The old adage states that rules are meant to be broken. And, in fact, many of today’s most revered leaders echo this time-tested mantra: Sir Richard Branson once uttered the sage advice, “You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.”

But while the rule-breaking approach certainly lends itself to disruptive ideas, innovative thinking, and challenging the status quo, don’t let the bravado fool you: Leaders do follow rules—just not always the rules taught in Management 101.

Below are a few out-of-the-box guidelines that some of the most famous leaders in recent history swear by—and how you can incorporate them into your own life.

Rule #1: Don’t Waste Brain Power on Trivialities

When it comes to leadership style in the most literal sense, Mark Zuckerberg is famous for his, let’s call it, “dorm room chic” fashion choices. His grey hoodie is an inextricable part of his public persona. Steve Jobs is another iconic figure who’s famous for a signature ensemble: Even Jobs’ LEGO character dons the black turtleneck.

There’s a well-documented reason why some successful leaders wear the same thing every day, and it’s not because they’re making a thinly veiled statement about corporate fashion: It’s to avoid decision fatigue, or the mental paralysis that results from information overload. The theory posits that your brain has a limited amount of decision-making power, so using it for trivial things—like your daily outfit or how to cook your eggs in the morning—is ultimately wasteful of a finite resource.

While we’re not advocating tossing out every wardrobe item that’s not on the grey scale, there is a valuable takeaway here: Prioritizing decisions is a crucial element of successful leadership. Look for opportunities in your own life to cut out or delegate choices that you don’t need to make—it can be key for reducing decision fatigue and freeing up extra brain space for matters that matter.

Rule #2: Fail, Fail Again

Growth through failure is one of the most prevalent themes touted by modern leaders.

James Dyson, for example, famously tested 5,127 prototypes of his revolutionary vacuum cleaner before releasing the version that finally went to market. Airbnb faced numerous VC rejections before finally successfully securing funding. Google Glass was probably one of the most famous failures out there.

I could go on and on. If you think about it (or do a little research), you’ll find that nearly every notable company has experienced spectacular failure at some point on the way. That’s because if you’re taking the risks required to do big things, things are bound to not work out as planned from time to time. Or, as author and speaker Ken Robinson says, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

So how can you use failure to propel you forward like the great leaders of our time, rather than letting it get you down? In their book The Other “F” Word: How Smart Leaders, Teams, and Entrepreneurs Put Failure to Work, John Danner and Mark Coopersmith suggest this: Expect that disasters will happen and plan for the worst of them ahead of time; aim to recognize failure early and respond as it’s happening; and if everything falls apart, analyze what went wrong and put those lessons into everything you do moving forward. And, we’d add, make sure you take care of yourself along the way and surround yourself with colleagues and comrades you’re certain will have your back in a slump.

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Rule #3: Always Ask for Criticism

On the path to successful leadership, feedback walks right next to failure. Not only is it important to “never stop iterating,” but it’s also crucial to seek honest feedback from consumers, colleagues, and your own team members.

In a 2013 TED talk, Elon Musk advised about the importance of seeking negative feedback, particularly from those closest to you and your business. “Really pay attention to negative feedback, and solicit it, particularly from friends,” he says. “This may sound like simple advice, but hardly anyone does that, and it’s incredibly helpful.” Bill Gates backs him up, suggesting leaders pay close attention to any negative points of feedback from users or customers: “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning,” he once famously advised. We’d note that this also applies to unhappy teammates, bosses, or anyone else you work closely with.

While it’s never fun to face your shortcomings, it’s important to take them seriously (but not personally) if you want to move forward. First things first, figure how much of the feedback is a fact or an opinion. While both may be worth addressing, this simple distinction is important. If need be, ask more questions of the person giving you feedback to really try to understand the crux of the problem. Then, start creating a plan to solve it, working with a trusted friend or advisor if you need some help understanding how to move forward.

And, of course, make sure to also remind yourself what you’re doing well along the way, to help keep your spirits up!

Rule #4: Have Confidence to Ask for What You Need

People often think successful leaders have gotten to the top by throwing themselves into their work, sacrificing their life for long hours at the office, and always being available. And while, yes, for some this is true, more often leaders are able to succeed because they are thoughtful about what they need to make all aspects of their lives work—and aren’t afraid to ask for it.

Sheryl Sandberg is one of the most famous proponents of this rule, and one of the disciples of Sandberg’s philosophy is Stacy Brown-Philpot, CEO of TaskRabbit. Brown-Philpot’s list of accomplishments is lengthy; her resume includes names like Goldman Sachs and Google, and she’s the founder of the Black Googler Network, a cornerstone of the company’s revamped diversity efforts. But, in her Lean In story, she shares that some of her successful decisions came not because she threw her life to the side, but because she figured out what she would need to balance everything. “Never be afraid to ask for what you need to make your whole life—not just your work life—work for you,” she shares.

Asking for the things you need to maintain work-life balance, as well as asking for support from employees, colleagues, and trusted confidants is paramount for successful leaders to avoid burnout and, ultimately, be better at what they do.

So, if you think a weekly work-from-home day, the opportunity to leave the office a little earlier to pick up your kids, or something similar would make you a more balanced person and, in turn, a better professional, don’t be afraid to approach your boss and see if a flexible arrangement can be worked out.

Becoming a leader isn’t easy, but the good news is, those who’ve come before have left a playbook that’s worth paying attention to. Begin to follow these rules, and you’ll likely get closer to success than you ever imagined.

Photo of woman in city courtesy of d3sign/Getty Images.