Interview with Mike Figliuolo: On leading with effective simplicity

Vera: A lot is written on leadership but not much on personal leadership. How do you define Personal leadership and why did you go with this focus in your book “One piece of paper”?

Mike: Personal leadership is about being an authentic individual. It’s about being yourself. Too many leadership models and approaches out there tell people “Look, we want you to be authentic but here’s exactly how we want you to behave.” That doesn’t make any sense. That advice is contradictory. It’s telling people that who they are is okay only as long as it fits a model for behavior. I prefer flipping that model around and saying “You’re okay how you are. Your beliefs and perspectives matter. Here are the job outcomes we want from you. Use your leadership approach how you think you’ll be most effective to achieve those goals.” That approach enables people to be truly authentic.


Vera: Leadership is complicated but you’ve distilled it down to a core – the maxims approach which evidently works. How did you assess that such a basic framework would be enough and effective as a tool?

Mike: Simplicity is more challenging than people think. The more complicated a leadership model is, the less likely it is to be put into daily practice. It’s that daily practice that builds effectiveness. What I’ve learned with this very simple framework is that people actually use it. When you can write your entire leadership philosophy on your coffee mug like a CFO I’ve worked with has done, the odds of applying that philosophy all day every day go up dramatically. He’s distilled his approach to something simple and he carries it with him everywhere he goes. That constant reminder of who he is and what he stands for is more likely to guide his actions than some big, convoluted model written in a giant binder that sits on his book shelf gathering dust.


Vera: Some of the feedback on your book is on how this approach to leadership is helping people learn about themselves. What’s been some of the feedback you’ve received that has pleasantly surprised you?

Mike: I always love to hear how people feel more confident about who they are as a leader and that the leadership maxims model has enabled them to build that confidence. When they tell me the model has helped guide them through challenging situations and did so effectively, I take that as tremendous praise.


Vera: What seemed to have resonated with your audience also is how the personal focus on leadership helps one to be clear about their motivations and values. But leadership is also about leading others. How does one ensure the personal leadership philosophy they craft will meet the needs of those they lead?

Mike: A big part of the leadership maxims method is taking one’s beliefs and values and finding opportunities to apply them to daily situations. Those situations are comprised of opportunities to lead others. When you can look at something you value and apply it to a challenge a member of your team is facing, that’s a measure of effectiveness of the method. If, for example, I have a value around knowing my people as individuals and understanding their personal needs and motivations, when I apply that value to how I interact with a member of my team, I’m using that value to lead someone else. When my insight into their motivations helps me lead them in a way that links the outcomes I desire to their personal motivations, that’s successful leadership.


Vera: From your work and teachings, what do you see as the biggest struggle people have in living up to the leadership they aspire to and what’s your advice on how they can overcome such challenges?

Mike: There’s a lot of pressure on leaders to achieve results. Many times that drive for results can cause conflict with the leader’s belief system. At the very least it can lead them to prioritize short-term results over building trusting relationships with team members. Those are the critical moments where leaders have to demonstrate the courage to push back on the drive for short-term results at the expense of the people they lead. I’m not saying you don’t need to achieve the results. What I’m saying is leaders have to find that balance between the results and how they work with their team to achieve them. The advice I give in those situations is to live up to the values you’ve articulated in your leadership maxims. Use that leadership philosophy as a filter to guide your behaviors and choices. It will help you strike the right balance between the results you’re trying to achieve and the way you lead your team members to achieve them.


Vera: “Leading the thinking” is one of the tenets of this ‘One piece of paper’ framework. What does that mean and how does it work in practice?

Mike: Leading the thinking is about looking past the day-to-day activities and asking what’s around the corner. It’s about investing time in predicting future events and creating contingency plans for how you’ll deal with various scenarios. Too often we get sucked into days full of meetings and fail to look over the horizon at issues that will manifest in the future. The result of that is we’re surprised and unprepared for those events when they occur. In practice, leading the thinking is about setting some “think time” on your calendar (I encourage a block of at least 90 minutes per month) to look at the future and think about challenges you could face or opportunities that could present themselves. Create contingency plans for those events and prepare your team for the possibility they’ll occur. Let your team handle the day-to-day stuff. Your job as the leader is to prepare them for the future environment they’ll face.


Vera: Where does thought leadership contribute its greatest value especially with so much focus on doing/action these days?

Mike: If you’re leading the thinking well, you’ll know it because there won’t be any major surprises. You won’t be caught off guard by events in your industry or in your organization. When major events do occur, you’re able to react to them quickly because you’ve already thought through contingency plans. It’s that ability to act quickly or even prevent future issues because you see them coming that contributes a tremendous amount of value to the organization.


Vera: What’s your assessment of the quality of leadership today and what advice would you give someone going into leadership for the first time?

Mike: I know the biggest challenge leaders face is the sheer velocity and volume of issues they’re dealing with at any given time. Resources are tight and they’re being asked to handle more responsibilities and make changes more quickly than ever before. The differentiator in terms of performance is the leader’s ability to see issues coming before they become big issues and their ability to delegate and develop their teams so they can handle the volume of work on their shoulders.

For new leaders, I encourage them to shut up and listen for a few months. Don’t change anything. Learn your business. Learn your people. Understand where you fit in that dynamic. It’s arrogant to think you can walk into a new team and start changing things on Day 1 because you know better than they do as far as what needs doing. Start out trusting their competence until proven otherwise. If you come in and start changing things without a full understanding of why things are the way they are, you’re going to cause unnecessary resistance and resentment. Invest some time in learning before acting.


Vera: Are there some key characteristics that you believe every leader should have and what would be your top three?

Mike: Every leader needs to be trustworthy, compassionate, and authentic. Period. Their team members need to trust that leader unconditionally and the leader needs to earn and maintain that trust. Leaders need to truly care about the well-being of their team members. They have to respect their values and beliefs. They need to have a desire to help their people grow and overcome the challenges they face. As far as authenticity, leaders need to be themselves. Team members know when their leader is wearing a mask. Those masks lead to mistrust. When you are confident with who you are and what you believe, your team knows what you stand for and they’re more likely to trust you. These three characteristics create a virtuous circle that builds upon itself and gets stronger over time.


Vera: What are you most proud of in terms of your own leadership and why?

Mike: My proudest moments are when members of my team succeeded. Whether it was delivering a project they didn’t think they could deliver, getting promoted, or overcoming a challenge they’ve faced, those moments are the basis of my satisfaction. Watching someone else achieve something and knowing you’ve had some role in that success – whether it was teaching them the skills they needed, providing the encouragement and support to get them through adversity, offering guidance that pointed them in the right direction, or getting them the resources they needed to succeed – gives me a tremendous sense of achievement as a leader.



Mike’s profile

Mike Figliuolo is an honor graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated in the top 5 percent of his class. He served in the U.S. Army as an armor officer. Mike also spent time in corporate America as a consultant at McKinsey & Company and as an executive at Capital One and Scotts Miracle-Gro. As the founder and managing director of thoughtLEADERS, LLC, he and his team train senior executives at leading companies on leadership, strategy, communications, innovation, and other critical business skills. He is the author of three books – , , and . More about Mike and his work at


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