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Four Rules Successful Leaders Know that No One Has Told You

There’s a lot of focus - seminars, literature, consultation, and more - on leadership and management skills: planning, effective communication, empowering your team, hiring effectively, and many more “soft skills” required for being effective in your job. I, myself, do a lot of this.


As I travel the USA as an Executive Coach, Facilitator, and Leadership Trainer, I’ve found there are a few things many of my clients have never been specifically told – things I hear about behind the scenes all the time when working with senior leadership in both large and small organizations.

Are these “secrets?” No. But they can make or break your credibility, and maybe even your career.

And chances are good that if you break one of these Rules, no one will tell you about it to your face.

Rule #1 – Stop Drinking So Much!

My rule number one is this: No one at work gets to see you drunk. Ever. No clients. No superiors. No peers. No subordinates. No exceptions.

It’s a simple rule to follow – your limit is two drinks per evening. Have one. Have another. Then stop.

The stories that come out of not adhering to this rule are never good. No heads of HR I work with have ever said to me, “This guy/gal is the life of the party. We all laughed when he/she kissed so-and-so at the office holiday party! We loved it!!”

That’s never happened.

What has happened is the reverse. And, unfortunately, I hear it all the time.

“He/she was being considered for promotion, but got completely hammered at the cocktail hour during an offsite meeting, and no one can shake the image if him/her arguing with the bartender about getting served a seventh drink.”


“We are all really, really dubious about the decision-making ability of So-and-so when he/she grabbed the keys from the valet and insisted on driving home after having six drinks and having trouble walking.”


“Wow. During a client meeting that involved the CEO of our company and the President of one of our key business partners, So-and-so got really drunk and started to ramble on incoherently.”

Your Take

After mentioning this rule to my clients and students, I invariably receive one of several responses:

  • “That’s silly. I can handle my alcohol. Two seems like too few for me to have a good time!”

  • “But these people are my friends! I need to unwind!”

  • “I’ve been doing it for years!”

  • “Everyone’s having a lot to drink. How can I NOT?”

My Response

Yeah… NO.

YOU want to become a respected leader of people, and you can’t figure out how to say “no thank you” to a drink?

YOU want to have an upward career trajectory. YOU want to be promoted. YOU want more responsibility and more visibility in the organization.

So…. YOU can’t play by the same rules as others or the same rules you have in the past. For a bunch of reasons:

  • You are always advancing or diminishing your reputation when others can see you. Whether you’re in the office, at a cocktail party, at an industry event, or at a barbecue of a co-worker, you’re always you. Behave like a fool and it carries over. (Consistent with that, positive interactions outside the office can improve work relationships!)

  • It’s virtually impossible for you to have any credibility giving feedback to a subordinate (or even a peer!) when you are known for exercising poor judgment regarding your behavior in front of business contacts.

  • If you stay sober when others are getting drunk, it allows you perspective. For example, perhaps there are things others may choose to say that you can stay silent about…


You don’t have to make a big fuss about it. You don’t even have to tell anyone.

Switch to club soda with lime, or some other innocuous-looking drink. Ask the server or bartender to make it look like a cocktail, if you wish.

Drink more when you get home or back to your hotel room, if you feel the need.

Final Thoughts

You will never regret drinking less. If you drink too much, you may not be aware of “making a mistake,” and – as noted above – you will probably never hear a word about drinking too much.

You are always making an impression. What kind of impression do you want to make?

Rule #2 – Go Easy on the Fragrance

It pains me even to have to talk about this Rule. But… my experience tells me that I do.

Rule number two is “No one should be able to smell you more than five feet away, and within five feet, it should be a pleasant smell.”

The days of heavy fragrance are gone. (I believe those days went out around the advent of color TV.)

In case no one has told you… Spray your fragrance into the air in front of you. (One or two spritzes, maximum.) Then wait a moment, and walk into the dissipating spray.

No spraying or dabbing directly on the wrists, neck, or other body parts.

Your Take

Most people respond to this in one of the following ways:

  • But my cologne/perfume/body spray is really popular! (and/or Really expensive!)

  • No one has ever said anything!

  • That’s ridiculous. Who cares how I smell?

  • I’m known as “the manager who smells good!”

My Response

You want to be most recognized for your smell? We have a problem.

You should want to be most recognized for your skills, your trustworthiness, your competence... NOT your smell.

If one of your co-workers smelled a little off, would you tell them? Probably not. So if you are a little off in the odor department, no one may tell you.

Take matters into your own hands.

  • Don’t let your fragrance speak more loudly than your expertise, your decision-making, and all the other skills you’re working on!

  • Many, many impressions you create are so subtle that people may not be able to articulate what it is…

  • Do you want to be known as the person who fills the room with the scent of Axe Body Spray, Patchouli Oil (a particular un-favorite of mine – and of many others), or even the essence of violets? So strong people can smell you coming, or have your scent lingering long after you've gone? Um… No. You want to be known as the competent, considerate person who’s easy to work with and gets stuff done.

Good personal hygiene is like vacuuming your home: No one notices if you do it. Everyone notices if you don’t.


Take care of this outside of work, with intimates such as spouse, partner, best friend. Ask for honest feedback. Mention that you are exploring fragrance options. Get some input. Check the "5-foot zone."

Rule #3 – Stop Talking about Sex


Stop talking about sex at work and/or with co-workers, subordinates, peers, or clients. Just stop. There’s no need, and it’s never helpful.

This is another one of those things few people will tell you about to your face.

This includes:

  • No bragging about your exploits, attributes, or conquests

  • No commenting or guessing about other people’s exploits, attributes, or conquests – or their lack thereof

  • No jokes – even if it’s only you and one co-worker secretly while no one else can hear you. Trust me, they can hear you and/or they’ll find out about it

Your Take

Most people respond in one of the following ways:

  • Everybody does it

  • People love it! They always laugh

  • My clients/business partners/superiors make these jokes!

  • Oh, stop being so “politically correct!”

My Response

You need to work on your credibility and your reputation. In the 1950s and 1960s, this was common banter in offices and at business functions.

Yes, it continues today, but the response is no longer positive. Society has evolved. You need to change with it.

When I talk to HR and senior leaders in organizations about this issue, they’re always thinking in terms of the damage sexual comments and sexual situations can do to a business – whether it’s a client who’s offended or an employee who’s feeling uncomfortable.

Smart leaders of the present and the future understand that sexual conversations and situations in the workplace are at best uncomfortable for others and, at worst, a litigation risk. Both are problems in the work environment.

In most cases I’ve seen, the CEO of a company isn’t putting any energy into promoting and developing someone who doesn’t have the sense to stop talking about sex in the workplace and/or business situations.


Just… stop. You lose credibility. You make people uncomfortable.

And if you don’t care about making people uncomfortable in work situations like this, you’re going to make a lousy leader.

Rule #4 – Stop Talking about Money

Ah, money. People love to talk about it.

Here’s the rule: Stop talking about salaries, bonuses, and compensation, in general. This includes

  • How much money you make

  • Asking others how much money they make

  • How much money your family has

  • How much you have in the bank

  • Stocks, investments, and other successes or losses you have

Your Take

Most people respond in one of the following ways:

  • But it’s a way of binding us together and makes us closer!

  • How else can I know where I stand, salary-wise?

  • Why can’t I share my “lifestyle” with others?

My Response

Again… No.

Talking about money at work creates discomfort by potentially revealing a lack of parity or other factors which can create dissatisfaction.

You may make less than someone else doing the same job because they’ve been there longer or you have less experience or education, or for any number of other reasons. But that information should not come up in a conversation with peers.

Discussions about personal finances are tacky at best and, at worst, create tensions, rivalries, dissatisfaction, and lack of productivity.

Effective leaders know that financial “sharing” is inappropriate at work and with co-workers, clients, subordinates, and superiors.


Here are situations where you should talk about money:

  • If you are someone’s manager and are specifically discussing with that person (alone) their pay, bonus, or other compensation

  • In compensation planning meetings with HR, finance, and other personnel who understand this information is confidential (Example: Presenting a request for a raise, bonus, etc., for one of your direct reports)

  • Specifically discussing your salary, bonus, or other compensation with your superior and/or an HR person who is involved in setting salary levels, etc., for you and/or your work group

  • Conversations about expenditures in work-related situations (Example: Are we on budget for this project? Where can we cut back in other areas to offset these costs?)

It may be fun to tell someone how much your vacation cost, or how much of a down-payment you put on a house… but it’s really a bad idea for aspiring or existing leaders to share this kind of information.

Summing it all Up

Some of these may be controversial, but I’m just calling ‘em as I see ‘em!

If you want to get ahead, you may have to forego some of the behaviors that you’ve enjoyed – or focus on things you’ve been unaware of!

Mitch Lippman is the President of The Mitch Lippman Group, Inc., a firm focusing on leadership development, including executive and organizational coaching, meeting facilitation, and training solutions for talent development. He is a Columbia University-Certified Executive and Organizational Coach, and has worked with many large and small companies in a wide variety of industries.

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