40 Essential Leadership Lessons From John Chambers

In October 2018, business legend John Chambers sat down with YPO CEO Scott Mordell to talk about his 20-year experience as CEO of Cisco (watch / read / listen to the full interview). During his tenure, Chambers grew the company from USD70 million to USD47 billion, and it was the backbone of the internet and a leader in areas from cybersecurity to data center convergence. During that time, the company survived five major downturns and six market transitions.

John Chambers’ new book “Connecting the Dots” is full of leadership insights from his storied career. Here are 40 pearls of wisdom you can expect to find inside.

  • You have to compete in the moment but also rise above the short-term wins or problems to think 3,5, and even 10 years out to pursue bigger and bolder dreams.
  • With digitization, anyone can innovate and leapfrog the competition at a scale and speed that’s unprecedented. There’s no entitlement, not even for Silicon Valley.
  • What will differentiate the winners from the losers won’t be technology or capital but leadership and a willingness to learn.
  • When I look back on the incredible competitors who later disappeared, I realize that most of them didn’t fail because they suddenly did the wrong thing but because they kept doing the right thing for too long.
  • Nobody is too far behind to come back and nobody is so far ahead that they can’t be replaced.
  • How you adapt will determine whether you win.
  • Take risks and move fast. Better to stumble first than arrive last. First movers face the biggest risks, but get more attention, opportunity and leeway to make mistakes.
  • You can disrupt what you do and what you know, but always stick to who you are and what you value.
  • If you wait until the trend is too obvious, you are already too late.
  • Change before you have to. The worst mistake is to do the right thing for too long.

  • Wisdom of experience and a teenage mindset are not mutually exclusive.
  • Don’t “make bets”, rather turn pattern thinking into a playbook.
  • The more prepared I am, the luckier I seem to get.
  • Acquisition tip: truly understand what you are acquiring and protect it at all costs.
  • My golden rule of acquisitions: Do what the customer tells you to do.
  • If your goal is to get the same set of customers to pay more for slightly improved products or service again and again, you’re not innovating.
  • Merging two successful technology companies of equal size might sound safe. In reality, it’s probably the riskiest thing you can do.
  • Write the press release for the results you want before you start.
  • When you compete against another company, you’re looking backward. When you compete against a market transition, you learn how to see around corners.

  • Perhaps an additional question to ask when you visualize your outcome isn’t just how to get there but who else can win at this too.
  • Embrace your purpose, not your products.
  • No brand is too big to fail.
  • The reason I’ve become such an advocate for replicable innovation processes is they make it easier to move with speed.
  • What set us apart were four key strengths: an ability to anticipate and get ahead of market transitions, innovation processes that could be replicated at scale; a culture that promoted trust and empowered teams; and a focus on solving problems rather than simply pushing product.
  • One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is personalizing every crisis.
  • The bigger the crisis, the calmer you get.
  • The key to successful acquisition are these four principles: focus on acquisitions that let you enter or expand new markets that are in transition; follow the lead of your customers; unless you are intentionally buying a stand-alone asset, immediately integrate what you buy into your architecture; and maniacally ensure a match with your culture and values.
  • Acquire big to small and partner big to big.
  • The secret of customer retention: Build relationships for life; sell people only what they need.

  • The most valuable currency with customers is trust and a track record.
  • You win or lose as a team.
  • My success as a leader, a salesperson, a father, a friend, or any of my other roles often comes down to how well I listen.
  • Enlightened leaders embrace ideas that are not only disruptive but also extend beyond their community, their comfort zone, and even their time in history.
  • There’s no pause button on innovation or rewind option for new technologies.
  • Increasingly, the measure of a great company is its ability to create shared wins for everyone.
  • My today’s prediction is that voice will be the next platform and dwarf all other forms of user interface.
  • The most important connections will always be the ones no router can transmit: the connections we have to each other.
  • I don’t get nostalgic for the things I’ve already done. None of it ever compares to the excitement of what’s next.
  • The message I have for every leader is this: You are not as good as people think you are when things go well and you’re also not as bad as people think you are when there’s a downturn.

Mary Sigmond is a content strategist, an award-winning storyteller and editor in chief of YPO's Ignite digital magazine. She has the pleasure of telling the engaging stories of some of the most influential young business leaders who are making an impact across the globe.