An Open Letter to Aspiring Great Business Leaders Around the World

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 11, Issue No. 10
January, 2013

By Dan Coughlin



The world needs you. Your country needs you. Your organization needs you. And your community needs you.

These aren’t just catchy little motivational phrases. I’m very serious about this. People need you to be at your very best as a business leader. Whether you’re 25 or 65, organizations need you now more than ever before. Across the globe and in your neighborhood, organizations and societies are hurting because of wild spending and bad decisions in the past and poor economies in the present. We are in a world-wide funk right now, and we need you to be at your very best.

Aspire for greatness as a business leader for the impact you can make more than the paycheck you can earn.

You will, in all probability, be rewarded financially for doing a great job as a business leader, but that won’t be enough for you to make the impact you are capable of making. Every great era in history has had people step up to do the noble work necessary to make a lasting difference. This is what we need from you. Realize your impact can create value for your customers, can create sustainable profitable growth for your organization, can help your country to get on solid financial footing once again, and can make an enormous difference in your community as you volunteer the skills you have developed as a business leader. However, this commitment to being a great business leader has to be at your peak level, not some derivative effort.

In a recent ten-week period of time I turned fifty years old and celebrated the fifteenth anniversary of owning my own business. As I look back on my life and my work and the people I’ve interacted with both personally and professionally, I see patterns of what made some people successful and others not so much. I would like to share some of these lessons with you as you move toward making a greater impact in the world as a business leader.

Your Personal Foundation

The impact you have as a business leader over the long term is directly related to the strength of your personal foundation.

Here are a few thoughts on strengthening your foundation.

Communication Strength

Do you listen when other people talk? I mean really listen. Do you let them finish their complete thoughts and pause for a moment before sharing your opinions? Are you interested in learning what they believe? When you share your thoughts, do you do so in a way that is clear, concise, caring, and compelling, or do you just dump on other people?

Communication is one of the essential skills of leadership. Keep working to communicate more effectively.

Physical Strength

Business leadership requires a lot of energy to stay on top of your game. Eating right and exercising regularly are two of the most important business habits you can develop. Your strength and your cardiovascular fitness will affect your conversations, your stamina, your attention level, and your ability to sustain focus through difficult situations.

Mental Strength

Feed your mind on a regular basis. If great leadership is your ambition, I suggest you consistently read books about great leaders and by great leaders. Make a list of ten leaders you really admire. These people can be still alive or dead for centuries. Either way, I encourage you to write down their names. Then find at least one book or google for at least one article on each person. Study as much as you can about these people. The insights you gather can be put to practical use in your work.

Moral Strength

I’m not going to tell you what is right and wrong. I do challenge you to clarify for yourself what you believe is right and wrong. On one side of a sheet of paper, write, “Actions that I think are the right thing for me to do,” and on the other side write, “Actions that I think are the wrong thing for me to do.” Invest thirty minutes total filling in both sides. Every day for the next three weeks read over both lists and add and/or delete words until you have the two lists the way you want them. Then read over those two lists three times a week. I think you might be amazed by how you start to do more of the little things you think are right and less of the little things you think are wrong. As I look back on the fifteen years I’ve been in business, I’m astounded by the number of people who reached the pinnacle of success in their chosen field only to crash down because they didn’t have the moral strength to do what they had already decided was the right thing to do. It usually started with the little things.

Financial Strength

Spend less than you make. Same goes for your business. Debt is a dangerous deal. Actually spend a lot less than you make. Strengthen your savings every day. Money in the bank is just as healthy as physical or mental strength. One of the biggest mistakes of my business career was thinking I could spend my way to success. I thought if I spent enough money on marketing that at the very least I would always make back what I spent. I loved that thought process so much that I not only made that mistake in 2001, but I repeated it in 2005 and 2007. You can’t force the market to respond to you, and you can’t manufacture happiness by spending. Save your money whenever you can. Get stronger financially. Invest wisely in your life and in your business. Think three times before you spend your money.

The Priority of Your Family Life

Fifteen months after I started my own business my first child, Sarah, was born. Several business executives pulled me to the side and said, “Make your family your number one priority, and you will build a successful business. If you put your family last every day, then your business may not be around for very long.” That was, and is, absolutely great advice.

Clients are great and projects are fun and exciting, but they have short shelf lives. The family you grew up in and the family you may have created are the most important relationships you have. Treat them with the utmost respect. Sometimes business leaders get things backwards. They think the key is to lead a global organization and then share what little crumbs of time they have left with their family. I’ve learned it’s the other way around. If you prove you can do a good job at home, then you have the ability to lead lots of other people. If you aren’t loyal and committed to the well-being of your family members, then you probably won’t have that skill set for your employees either.

The Necessity of Friends

Men need men and women need women. I’m not talking about going out and partying. I’m talking about the real need to have someone to talk with, someone to exchange ideas with, and someone to discuss your career and family life with. Conversations with your significant other are critically important, but so are conversations with friends, really good friends, the ones who will be brutally honest with you. These friends can help you be better at home, at work, and in your community. These kinds of friendships require effort and time and patience and being there for each other over the long term.

I have been the enormous beneficiary of two remarkable 35-year friendships. I met Mike Feder and Jeff Hutchison when I was a freshman and sophomore in high school. We were good friends for about fifteen years and then we took things to a higher level. For the past twenty years, Feds, Hutch, and I met for at least three days each year for Dream Weekend where we discussed what went well the previous year, what didn’t go well, and how we could make the next year better. Feds was in Kansas City, Hutch was in Chicago, and I was in St. Louis, we had eight kids between the three of us in those twenty years, and we had three very busy careers and lots of community responsibilities. The reason our friendships worked so well was because we worked at it. We made time for each other, we listened to each other, and we challenged each other’s decisions and thought processes. Hutch and I lost Feds to brain cancer three days before his fiftieth birthday. He was 24 days younger than me. His example and wise counsel continue to influence Hutch and I in many ways.

A Commitment to Your Business: Your Mission, Your Employees, Your Customers, and Your Suppliers

Bet you thought I was never going to get around to your actual business life. The reason I put your foundation, your family, and your friendships before your business is because the most important thing you bring to your business is you. And you are made up of your foundation, your family, and your friends. The stronger you are, the more value you have to bring to other people.

However, you have to be committed to your business in order to be a truly great business leader. You can’t just get to it when you feel like it. Every industry and every business has a vast array of nuances that are critically important. You can only gain real understanding of those nuances by immersing yourself into understanding your business. There are widely differing personalities and individual needs that you will need to understand, there are supplier needs and concerns, and there are customers to study in order to understand them better. Strategies need to be developed and clarified and communicated, tactics need to be executed well, and adjustments need to be made.

If your only reason for working is a paycheck, you may very well never bring the passion necessary to make the impact you are capable of making. You need an underlying purpose for doing the work that you are doing. Take the time to identify that purpose and to reflect on it on a regular basis. As I wrote at the beginning of this article, people need you to be at your very best as a business leader. Great business leaders can dramatically enhance their organizations and the impact those organizations have all over the world.

A Commitment to Your Community: Locally, Nationally, and Globally

Beyond just your organization, there are so many other people that can benefit from you at your very best. Okay that’s a fancy way of saying, “Volunteer. Give your time and energy and talent to organizations from your local schools to national causes to world-wide issues.”

One of the things that Feds did was to start a not-for-profit charitable organization called “Gotta Have HOPE” with his wife, Joyce. They actually started it in 2008, three years before Feds found out he had cancer. The objective is to raise money and provide support in multiple ways for a remarkably poor school in Uganda. To me, it was a real-life example of a business leader taking his skills and applying them in a committed way to enhancing the world.

Final Encouragement

Essentially this letter is my encouragement for you to stay focused every day on bringing the best you have to offer to other people. Sometimes we wonder if we really matter. We wonder if what we do really matters at all in the big picture of things. The temptation is to stop trying our best, to think that there really isn’t much of a difference between an average effort and a great effort. I want to clarify for you that your best effort every day really does matter very, very much.

The world needs your best, your country needs your best, your organization needs your best, and your community needs your best. Please, not just for your sake, but for the sake of other people, bring your very best effort to your work as a business leader every day.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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