Leadership principles: Practical Tips for Everyone

Isabelle Nüssli – a senior executive with expertise in leadership, succession planning, talent recruitment, coaching and startups – shared her leadership principles at SSA’s Founders Day in April in a thought-provoking presentation. 

Isabelle was inspired to explore leadership conflicts, resulting in two best-selling books drawing on her own experiences, studies and extensive discussions with other business leaders.  Her book Cockfighting: Solving the Mystery of Unconscious Sabotage at the Top of the Corporate Pyramid draws on studies in business, law and psychology to investigate the drivers of conflict, offering tools for overcoming differences and facilitating collaboration. 

Her second book Beyond Corporate Governance: Understand & Manage the Three Hidden Key Drivers to Help Prevent Derailment in Business reveals why existing processes are flawed and provides strategies for navigating change to future-proof your business.

Here, I can barely start to do justice to just the leadership principles Isabelle covered in her presentation, the breadth of which just highlights the extensive demands on leaders.  Fortunately, there are principles, guidance, coaching and support available to help.

The principles Isabelle shared include the following for the leaders in all of us:


  • Be proactive and try to anticipate the consequences of change

The operating environment is fast-paced and interconnected with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. 

But here’s what’s interesting – external change often requires change inside the company (e.g., new investors, new teammates, new org structure). These changes can cause the internal equilibriums to shift unexpectedly – equilibriums related to the product, people’s interest, and the power balance.

There is always going to be change.  Leaders must be proactive and anticipate the consequences of changes they make because of external changes (e.g. a team is given more power to speed up decision-making). Good or bad? It depends. It just needs to be considered.


  • Think long-term and take responsibility

“I have no time to tie my shoelaces, I need to keep running.” 

Sounds ridiculous, but don’t we sometimes think or act that way?  There is never time – now or later, so tie your shoelaces.

  • Build a structure, alignment and governance. Clean your glasses!

‘Governance? Oh no, thank you very much’ you might be thinking.  And yet governance is needed; the key question is: how much. The answer is ‘not too little’ but ‘not too much’ either.

Let’s define what governance means.  The Corporate Governance Institute definition:

Corporate governance refers to how companies are run and for what purpose.  It defines an organisation’s power structure, accountability structure and decision-making process.  It is essentially a set of tools that enables management and the board to run an organisation more efficiently and effectively.

Clarity of roles & responsibilities is essential. 9 out of 10 companies lack clarity. Each person has a clear view of their own role and those of others, but hardly ever are these views discussed.

Clarity increases efficacy, efficiency, accountability, transparency, motivation and ultimately productivity, which impacts the bottom line.

Isabelle highlighted the need for businesses to discuss and align on the WHAT – what is the role – and the HOW – how is a role filled – early on. It will only get more difficult and costly later!  

A basic 1 pager or spreadsheet is easy in a team of 3 and once you have that, it gets easier as you expand.   Focus on where you want to go and work backwards.  There are lots of tools online; and learn from others.

Isabelle is often surprised by the lack of clarity of roles and responsibilities in organisations.  Don’t be one of the ones surprising her!

  • Lead yourself 

“The starting point in leading others is learning to lead yourself.”   (Robin Sharma)

Identify your drivers, values, strengths, weaknesses, and emotions.

Check in with your emotions, get to know them and learn to control them. You will need this skill for the remainder of your life.

  • Think of Einstein: Ego = 1/Knowledge

Ego is important, otherwise we would not survive. But there is too much ego in business. The question is ‘Does your ego need to be nurtured all the time?’

  • Balance action and reflection 

Don’t try to run a marathon with sprint pace!

Sometimes, you have to take a step back to see that you’re moving forward in the right direction (Erika Taylor)

  • Create a sounding board 

You need a reality check – maybe it’s from family, friends, a coach or a mentor.

Find a mentor – and be one yourself

  • Consult where you need 

«If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur.” (Red Adair)

  • Leading others 

“People will not remember exactly what you did or said but they will never forget how you made them feel.” (Maya Angelou)

Have a vision; have and provide direction; know thyself; inspire others; be transparent; be nice! The world is small.

  • Communicate, communicate! 

Be explicit – don’t expect people to interpret signs.

Bring difficult topics to the table; set collaboration guidelines – ‘rules of the game’; no silos.  

When facing a challenge: don’t go sideways (ie. get stuck with problems). Walk forward – think about solutions.

  • Recruit to build the team

Have the right people in place:  no mini-me’s, no compromise on values and character.

“When ‘I’ is replaced by ‘we’, even ‘illness’ becomes ‘wellness’ .” (Malcolm X)

  • Build a strong Board and look for strong Investors 

Investors have a critical role in providing the experience and help to survive.  

The Board is fundamental to review strategy, targets, responsibilities, performance, and future – so select wisely.    Boards need their noses in and hands out. 

From both, you need sparring partners and a sounding board.  Welcome challenging questions!

And remember what hat you are wearing in every interaction!  Be aware of whether you are acting as a founder, a shareholder, a board member, CxO etc.

  • Special Case: Crisis – expect the unexpected

“The dots cannot be connected in advance” (Steve Jobs)

Setbacks can prepare you for something even bigger – if you grasp and learn from opportunities.  

In crisis…..Focus!  Direction, awareness, communication and make DECISIONS!


And final words of advice:

  • Think big!
  • Keep feet and ears on the ground
  • Do your housekeeping
  • In networking, prioritizing quality before quantity


Now, if you can sort all of that, you’re a leader!  It’s clearly not that simple, but these leadership principles offer fundamental guidance for the continuous journey towards becoming better leaders.  And remember – leadership is an action, not a position.


Author: Suzanne Leighton


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