Follow these six principles, and you’ll develop strong leadership skills

Editor’s note: This is another installment of “Ask Mal.” Mal Mixon, former chairman of Invacare Corporation and a well-known entrepreneur, will regularly share his business advice and experience with Smart Business readers. Ask him a question at [email protected], and your inquiry could be the inspiration for his next column.

Q: I’ve just been promoted into management and would like to ask what you consider the most important principles of leadership?

The leadership principles I learned in the Marines and from my experiences are timeless. They are:

  • Set yourself as an example. Don’t ask your associates to do more than you do. In business, if you are unwilling to take the red-eye to California or to confront tough problems, how can you expect your people to do that?
  • Develop loyalty downward; care about your people first and not yourself. Listen to what all your associates want to say — usually their opinions are quite different. The important thing is to listen. Get their input before you make important decisions. You are only as good as your team. Become interested in your teammates and their families as people. You have to understand them and individually deal with any issues.
  • Make integrity a priority. Never make a promise that you do not intend to honor or keep. That is simply a matter of ethics. Never lie to them. Sometimes we agree on a matter and it may not work out the way we had hoped, but I think it is important to follow through. Sometimes, it is persistence that causes it to happen.
  • Keep your tenacity and resolution strong. Cultivate an unfaltering determination to achieve your plans and goals. Some people may become discouraged easily when something doesn’t quite go right. They may think, ‘Well, I can’t do that; the competition did this.’ You really have to have a killer mentality about getting it done. If you think you can or think you can’t — you are probably right.
  • Become an expert in your profession. A snow job never works. When a new associate is hired at a company, if that person is a phony, within 30 days everyone will know it. You can’t fool people very long. I’ve always advised people to become an expert at something; become a great marketer, a great engineer, a great operating person.
  • Emphasize courage and honor. Face difficult problems and circumstances squarely and lead where others may be apprehensive or unsure. Leaders have to tackle the tough problems and not the easy ones like those you get off your desk right away. You have to have the mentality of ‘I like to deal with problems. I like to fix things. I know when I fix it, the company is going to be a lot better.’

Top management’s most important function is leadership. I first wrote down these leadership points more than 30 years ago, and I don’t think my views about leadership have changed at all since then. Looking back at the tests my company has had — expansions, acquisitions, trials of running out of money and changing computer systems, which almost brought us to our knees — we’ve always been able to get through them. They made us bigger, better and stronger.

Mal Mixon is the former CEO and chairman of Invacare Corporation. A complete story of Mal’s rags-to-riches journey is told in his book, “An American Journey,” published by Smart Business. It can be found at and on