Bill and Melinda Gates Just Wrote an Extraordinary Annual Letter That Teaches Us 7 Powerful Leadership Lessons

A decade ago, Bill and Melinda Gates began writing about their enormous philanthropic efforts impacting the world, which they highlight in their annual letter.

They just released their 10th letter yesterday, marking the ten-year anniversary where they answer “10 tough questions” people most often ask them about their work.

As I read the letter, I was profoundly touched by their humanity. Sure, most of us familiar with The Gates Foundation, the largest private foundation in the US holding nearly $40 billion in assets, revere their ongoing commitment to combat the effects of some of the world’s biggest problems stemming from lack of education, global warming, and extreme poverty, to name a few.

But what I saw in this letter is the collective wisdom and advice of two special people that anyone — rich or poor, black or white, young or old, male or female — can freely take and apply to change their own immediate worlds.

What Bill and Melinda Gates teach us about leadership.

As I dug deeper and studied this letter, I found gold nuggets sprinkled throughout that we can immediately apply to improve our own leadership and workplaces closer to home. In no particular order, here are seven specific points I’ve extracted, adding my own leadership perspective to each.

1. Focus on optimism.

Bill Gates states, “[B]eing an optimist isn’t about knowing that life used to be worse. It’s about knowing how life can get better. And that’s what really fuels our optimism.” In their example of optimism to fighting global injustice and curing diseases, we learn of how to activate and cultivate our own optimism at home and work: to keep learning new things, growing as people, becoming aware of social issues locally (and within your corporate walls), and partnering with others to develop strategies and solutions to the problems we face.

2. Get to know the perspectives of others. 

Melinda Gates says, “We’ve learned over the years that listening and understanding people’s needs from their perspective is not only more respectful — it’s also more effective.” This is especially true for those in positions of influence. Sometimes the tendency is to plow ahead and call the shots from the ivory tower without doing what Bill and Melinda do in their economic development efforts: “working with people on the ground.” Translating this to your team or small business, it’s working closely with the people (your employees) on the ground closest to the customer, listening to truly understand what they feel, hear, and see because they may hold more knowledge and have the best information available from their vantage point. 

3. Empower others to make choices.

Melinda Gates states, “In all our work, we are interested in making sure people have the knowledge and power to make the best choices for themselves.” Closer to home, this is critical for anyone in a leadership role — to develop others, increase their own capacity to lead and learn new things, allow for them to exercise entrepreneurial rights inside their own organizations so they can take ownership of their work and careers. 

4. Model the values of respect and equality.

Perhaps firing a shot across the bow toward the current administration, Melinda Gates states, “Equality is an important national principle. The sanctity of each individual, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender, is part of our country’s spirit.” Here’s the parallel to leadership and the workplace: What Melinda Gates speaks of is also part of the spirit of diverse teams that value and respect one another’s humanity to produce great work. And great leaders make sure that differences are valued and respected, and they will make sure there’s freedom of diversity in the expression of opinions and perspectives. In a strong community of work where all are respected and valued, there’s no competition between different individuals. There are no lone-rangers because it’s the team that wins, not any individual contributor because team members serve one another. In turn, this produces great collaboration.

5. Model transparency.

Bill Gates states, “[T]here is nothing secret about our objectives as a foundation. We are committed to being open about what we fund and what the results have been.” That’s transparency at its core. Glenn Llopis, author of The Innovation Mentality, challenges conventional management thinking when he said this in Forbes: “Being transparent is a powerful thing, if you can trust yourself and be trusted by others.The reason most leaders are not transparent is because they believe they will be viewed as less authoritative; that the credentials they worked so hard to attain will lose their power, leverage and gravitas.” The effect of transparency is just the opposite. Transparency promotes an open culture of respect and dignity void of the usual toxic corporate metaphors like backstabbing, gossip, and throwing people under the bus. The business case for it has and always will be about the team — about strong relationships, collaboration and, lest we forget, getting results!

6. Be open minded.

In describing one of her husband’s best attributes, Melinda Gates states, “Bill is very open-minded, which isn’t necessarily how people perceive him.” That speaks to humility as a weapon of choice for strong leaders such as Bill Gates. Melinda adds that if there’s one thing she knows about her husband that she wishes everybody did, it’s that “he has a kind heart, listens to other people, and lets himself be moved by what they say.” That shows Gates’ openness — being open minded enough to listen and consider the ideas and contributions of other people that will further his own philanthropic causes. In all the leadership stories I’ve gathered over the years, the best and most open leaders gladly accept the role of learners​ and know that each person has something important to teach them​; they ask questions and seek input, and are sincerely interested in the answers; they might ask, “How am I doing?” which takes an open mind and humble nature to ask such a question and to consider the answer. Finally, they are open enough to admit mistakes and say three magic words that will regain trust faster than a Usain Bolt 100-meter sprint: “I was wrong.” 

7.  Do meaningful work and create the platform for others to do the same. 

One of the questions commonly asked of Bill and Melinda Gates is: “Why are you really giving your money away — what’s in it for you?” In explaining how it’s every rich person’s responsibility to use their wealth to give back to society, Bill Gates boils his reasons down to two: meaningful work and having fun doing it. I’ll speak to the first since it greatly pertains to leadership and management. Experiencing positive emotions is at the root of human motivation. Therefore, managers need to have a basic understanding of human behavior, and what inspires people to perform their jobs at a high level. In Give and Take, Wharton professor Adam Grant says that when people find purpose in their work, it will not only improve that person’s happiness, it will boost productivity. So it would behoove managers to learn the strengths, gifts and talents of their employees, and craft and assign meaningful work (beyond a static job description) that will bring out their passions and release discretionary effort across the organization. OK, now that managers and owners know this, the same can apply to them as well. Here’s more inspiration on meaningful work from Bill Gates: “Both of us love digging into the science behind our work. At Microsoft, I got deep into computer science. At the foundation, it’s computer science plus biology, chemistry, agronomy, and more. I’ll spend hours talking to a crop researcher or an HIV expert, and then I’ll go home, dying to tell Melinda what I’ve learned.” So go ahead, find work you can be proud of and passionate about — make it your calling and learn everything you possibly can to advance your own work cause. And before crafting meaningful work to others, craft your life’s work in your heart so that you can jump out of bed in the morning with meaning and purpose with each step. To Gates’ second reason (fun), when you’re wrapped up in daily intrinsic motivation doing meaningful work…welcome to the most fun and enjoyable work you’ve ever had. It comes with the territory.

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