5 Leadership Tips for Creating an Inspiring Culture

Pat Gelsinger, CEO of VMware, shares what he calls his "5 Ls of Great Leadership," which summarize his advice for building and maintaining a productive, innovative and inclusive culture.
By Pat Gelsinger, CEO, VMware

Much has been written about the importance leadership plays in the success of any venture. Over the years, many have tried to capture the elusive formula for success. However, to be truly effective, I believe you need to find your own authentic style and approach to leadership. No one size fits all and no book can teach you everything you need to know. Throughout my life I’ve learned more from my failures than any success, and I’ve realized a leader needs to be humble enough to embrace those failures to ultimately succeed. Great leaders need to be able to innovate within themselves, the organizations and in every area of the business – not just in R&D!

So, what have I learned? Here is the list of what I call my Leadership “Ls”:

Leadership Listens

Leading begins with listening: “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”[1] True and active listening is respectful, thoughtful and guiding. As with any skill, strong listening muscles take practice. Ask open questions and listen hard for the answers – what is said and left unsaid, what is affirming the general direction and where differences are hiding. Too often, we listen only at a superficial level. Listen for enlightenment; that’s when great ideas can be found. Listen to the surrounding noise and don’t let the signal drown out quieter or lower level voices.

It must be “OK” for teams to express divergent opinions. Especially where a perspective is different from your own. It may not always be easy, but leaders must learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This is something I’m consciously working on all the time. I’ve forced myself to be more open to views and experiences that are radically different from my own. Most importantly, challenge your own natural biases (we all have them!). This is at the heart of embracing diversity.

“I’ve forced myself to be more open to views and experiences that are radically different from my own. Most importantly, challenge your own natural biases (we all have them!). This is at the heart of embracing diversity.”

–Pat Gelsinger, CEO VMware

When I first joined VMware, the company was coming off a period of fast-paced growth. As a leadership team, we listened closely to a variety of perspectives. It became clear that we needed to focus on particular parts of our portfolio to develop a more coherent strategy – a concept that’s easy to talk about, but decidedly more difficult to achieve. Without the active listening approach, it would have taken much longer for us to reach such a conclusion and arrive at the right solution.

Leadership Learns

Leaders need to have an unrelenting thirst for learning. It’s about having humility and being open to change – maintaining a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. Even when times are good and the wind is at your back you can be sure there will be a new challenge waiting just around the corner. That means having the courage to explore new approaches, seeking wisdom in unusual places and practicing new skills.

Make yourself vulnerable and find opportunities to learn something new. Ask others to challenge your thinking or tell you if they think you are wrong and why. Often this requires me to read, study and reflect more. I may have to recruit engineers, sales or marketing representatives privately in my office to help me understand what is really going on. The goal is to explore the facts behind the facts. I am constantly synthesizing new data, applying learnings to strategy and plans and making little adjustments as I learn. Over time, I’ve learned that when I open up to others, they open up to me. I get more feedback and I learn more.

Leadership Lifts

Challenges will always arise and that demands resilience. Yet, resilience isn’t just about recovering from setbacks, it’s about owning failure and using it as a springboard to push onward and upwards. A leader’s relentless pursuit to self-improve will influence and inspire others to perform their best, too.

Silicon Valley is littered with examples of how a moment of failure – responded to and managed in the right way – became a defining moment which elevated the individual or company to a new level. Oftentimes the forces against you are the very thing required to drive innovation. Not every decision will go according to plan, but how we respond and build from these moments are key.

I’ve also learned that in challenging times, a leader’s most powerful tool is practicing positivity and encouragement. When I show up with a negative demeanor, things can spiral quickly. When I show up with a positive and forward-thinking outlook, the team is encouraged. However, staying positive does not mean ignoring the reality of the situation. People still need to know when you are not happy with performance. Tell them when things are not acceptable, but also ask: “How are we going to fix it?” A positive outlook is powerful and contagious – use it regularly.

Leadership Links

It’s up to leaders to connect the dots across diverse teams to ensure shared understanding, purpose and inspiration. Great leaders break down silos within organizations to build trust and nurture the exchange of ideas and skill sets.

“Great leaders break down silos within organizations to build trust and nurture the exchange of ideas and skill sets.”


Ultimately, strong links across teams shape the experience of your end customer. If a customer can infer your organizational silos when they use your products or services, you’ve got work to do. Alternatively, if the customer says, “I can work with any company in the world, but I chose yours because the products are better, the support is better and the people are better,” then you are on the right track!

Leadership Loves

Ultimately, all the “Ls” of Leadership come together in a word not often seen in business textbooks: Love. A great leader loves his company, products, employees, communities and customers. Every leader should be passionate about all aspects of the business – all of which inherently come with both challenges and rewards.

It starts with self-love and embodies an authentic leader who is at ease with who they are. Instead of cultivating personas for different parts of your life, bring your whole self to work. Similarly, allow your team to do the same and encourage them to be themselves. The skills individuals have in one area of their life are often beneficial to another part. Our differences in personal thought, experience, background and culture all enrich and empower high-performance teams, and ultimately drives innovation.

Remember: In the average week, you will spend more of your waking hours with your coworkers than you do with your family. You are doing life with them – you need to enjoy them!

Ultimately, innovation is the lifeblood of technology, and increasingly this is true of all industries and functions. Create a culture that encourages, inspires and drives continuous progress – where the Leadership “Ls” are visible and practiced daily – and you will have made an excellent start.

[1] Grimm, Sheila, and Amy Schakat. “Literacy-Learners to Leaders: Our Journey.” Techniques, vol. 89, no. 2, Association for Career & Technical Education, Feb. 2014, p. 10.

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