So You Want to Be a Leader? Secrets From Attila the Hun

We sat down at a corner table with Number Three Son, ML (his fiancée), and two friends of theirs who looked to be attractive, smart, and good natured. Just the sort of people one would want to liven up a dinner.

ML introduced me to their friends. Then one of them, a green-eyed, blonde with freckles said, smiling: “You don’t remember me, do you? I worked for you. You made me cry once.”

 This produced – no surprise – a moment of awkward silence.

The following day, this morning, I climbed the spiral staircase in our Rancho Santana hideaway (in Nicaragua) and scanned the books on the shelves. I was looking for a short read. Something I could enjoy in the free hour I had.

Of the hundreds of books on those shelves, there were fewer than a dozen I hadn’t read. None of them were appealing. So I selected five I had read before, set them down beside me on the daybed, and languidly thumbed through them.

One reminded me of last night’s awkward moment. It was a bestseller nearly 30 years ago. Title: Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, by Wess Roberts, “Ph.D.”

It was a type of business book I don’t ordinarily enjoy: using an extended metaphor (Attila the Hun as a leader) to illustrate fairly ordinary business wisdom. Among the several hundred bits of advice, I found some that made good Attila-the-Hun-like sense.

But as I wrote them down, I realized that most of them didn’t ring exactly true. So I changed them to match my experience and current thoughts. Here they are (significantly revised from the book):

On what it takes to be a successful leader


  • You must have the courage, creativity, and stamina to focus on accomplishing your principal responsibility. And that responsibility is to produce profits – a continued growth in profits – by providing your customers with a continued increase in the value of your products.
  • You must recognize and accept that your success as a leader cannot come from books about leadership, and certainly not from the retroactively upgraded stories told by successful leaders. It must come from anchoring your actions to the core strengths of your personality.
  • You must remember that success will depend not only upon your sustained willingness to work hard but also upon your willingness to push people beyond their “comfort zones.”
  • You must never forget that your primary relationship with your employees is a business relationship whose purpose is to serve your customers. You are not and should not try to be their friends.
  • You should endeavor always to be fair and helpful with employees. But never at the expense of making them more useful to and productive for the business.


Those qualities alone would eliminate most potential leaders. But there are more…


  • You must be willing – no, determined – to pursue ideas you know are right. Even in the face of opposition and challenge.
  • You must not be threatened by contemporaries or subordinates whose skills and personalities are stronger than yours. On the contrary, you should seek them out and promote them.
  • You must be willing to make unrecognized and thankless personal sacrifices.
  • You must put the success of the business (and, therefore, the satisfaction of its customers) above your own desires.
  • You must be willing to learn and to grow and to change. But never to doubt your integrity.

The moment you accept a leadership role, you must also embrace certain responsibilities.

On a leader’s responsibilities


  • You must take responsibility for establishing the culture of your company. The way your employees work, the way they treat one another, and, most importantly, the way they think about and treat your customers.
  • You must remind your employees that a company can never stand still. It must either grow or shrink. But in order to stay healthy, it must grow.
  • You must then warn them that growth means change and that change means confusion and sometimes even chaos. And tell them that if they are not capable of responding positively to change and chaos, they should be working elsewhere.
  • You must learn to delegate – and continue to delegate, as if your goal is to remove yourself from the role of leader. But you must never delegate the most important skill for running a business: bringing in new customers at allowable acquisition rates.
  • You must give your managers direction. But you must allow them to create and execute their particular plans in their own way. At the same time, you must communicate your broad vision for the company to all your employees, so they can measure that vision against the actions and directions of the people they report to.
  • You must select the most capable people to handle the most difficult situations, and give them all the support they need to succeed.
  • When an employee merits praise, praise him/her publicly. When you must criticize something they’ve done, do it privately.
  • You must strongly discourage political behavior. By that I mean any behavior aimed at pleasing the whims and demands of people at the top of the organization chart rather than the overall goal of growing the company’s profits.


Again, most of these depart somewhat considerably from the originals. But no matter. Mine are better.

Back to last night…

This was not the first former employee that told me I’d been the cause of his/her anguish. And yet I am always dismayed to hear it.

What could I have said or done to make her cry? And why would I ever want to?

I like to think of myself as a caring person, generous with my attention, knowledge, and money.

I love the experience of mentoring younger people and rejoice at their achievements.

And yet I couldn’t deny that I somehow earned a reputation for having been demanding and even perhaps insensitive “in the old days.”

So here comes my excuse: It is quite easy to be nice to employees if your goal as a leader is to be liked. But if you are trying to move your enterprise forward in a competitive environment, you frequently will be challenged to demand more of your people than they want to give and sometimes to be critical of their performance.

 In other essays, I’ve explained this in terms of producing profits.

My argument is that profits are unnatural. They are achieved only when employees work harder and longer than they want to work. So, as a leader responsible for the continual growth of company profits, you can be successful only if you are willing to push. If you don’t, the value of your products for your customers will diminish in small degrees over time. And they will continue to diminish until profits are gone.

Of course, there is an alternative argument that says pushing isn’t necessary. That if you set a good example, you will pull your employees along with you.

I believe this is possible. Truly charismatic leaders, by the sheer force of their personal magnetism, can pull their company and their employees forward without friction. But that sort of charisma is rare.

I wish I had it. I really do.

But even if you do have that level of charisma, it won’t work on everyone. There will be a fair number of employees for whom it will have no power. You can’t ignore the laggards and the troublemakers. You have to either fire them or – if you think they are quality people – you have to push them.

Ultimately, it depends on them, not you.

So I guess I’m saying that if you want to be a successful leader – successful in the sense of moving an enterprise forward – you must be willing to sometimes play the tough guy.

All of the above went through my head last night in the infinitely long moments after my ex-employee said I had made her cry.

“I’m really sorry to hear that,” I finally said.

“I know you didn’t mean to,” she said. “I know you were trying to help me do a better job. But you don’t realize how scary you were back then.”

“You’re right,” I said.

“But you’re not so scary now, she said. “That’s the only reason I mentioned it.”

I mugged a humble smile, and everyone laughed. Half a real laugh and half a laugh of “Okay, that’s over. Let’s get on with the evening.”

PS: This morning, Giovanna forwarded me a letter from LN. (True story. Italics are mine.) “Twenty years ago, Mark spent a lot of time teaching me to write. He was generous with his time. He even took me out to dinner after I published my first piece. When I think about that it brings a smile to my face. I’m in town and want to repay the favor.”