Twenty four years ago, I thought I had it all figured out. I believed I understood leadership, and I understood marriage. Boy was I naive! I look back now and see how many leadership lessons marriage has taught me.

Leadership Lessons From Marriage

On my wedding day, October 10, 1993, my dad, General Jim Anderson shared with me his secret to a successful marriage.

The General:  “Buddy, before your mom and I got married we decided that I would make all the big decisions and she would make all the small decisions.”

Me:  “I really like the sound of that!” I said through a grin.

The General: “And in 30 years of marriage there hasn’t been a big decision yet.”

I have learned a lot about life, love, and leadership from being married to Elizabeth.  Not all of the lessons were easy to learn.  But, they have made me a better leader not just at home, but at work as well.

Leadership Lesson 1:  Someone Has To Make A Decision

The story my dad told was funny but accurate.  Someone has to be ultimately responsible for making the decisions in a marriage. Some readers may get angry with this thought, but it has worked for us.

For years we spent hours upon hours debating decisions. What school should our kids attend, what house should we buy, where should we go on vacation….  But if we ever got to an impasse where we could not come to a decision together, we decided I would make the final decision.

The key to this strategy has always been that we both had ample opportunity to share our opinions and both felt not just heard, but also understood. If at that juncture, we were still stuck, then I would decide.

In business, someone has to decide. Consensus on a leadership team would be nice, but it is often a dream. I have been involved in committees where the leader wanted consensus. On those committees nothing happened or what did happen was humorous.  After all, a camel is horse put together by committee!

In the end, after the leader has heard the arguments and is sure he understands opinions of the key players, a decision must be made.  The key is the other people being sure they were heard and understood. 

As Patrick Lencioni says,  “Most people do not need to get their way, they just need to know their way was heard and given consideration.” 

Leadership Lesson 2:  Listen Longer Than You Want To

I was not a good listener when I married Elizabeth. Most of our early arguments can be boiled down to my unwillingness to listen longer than I wanted to listen. 

At a certain point, I was ready to talk, solve her problems, or end the conversation.  Needless to say those were rough discussions.

I learned through the years to “Listen until it hurts.” as my friend and leadership expert Steve Wiley likes to say.  By disciplining myself to listen until it hurts, I have been able to avoid more misunderstandings, make my wife feel valued and find resolution to our conflicts much sooner.

As a leader I learned I could avoid misunderstandings by listening better as well.  Therefore I made my team feel valued and resolved conflicts more efficiently.  My life as a leader got easier as a result. The same discipline I learned to employ at home made be a better leader at work.

Leadership Lesson 3:  It’s OK To Be Wrong

Pride is an ugly thing in a marriage.  If either person (usually both people) are so prideful they are unwilling to entertain the other person’s ideas, then that relationship is bound for trouble.

We were in trouble because I was so sure of myself. Plus, since I was so sure I was always right, it also meant that I was sure she was always wrong. That attitude diminished her as a person and kept her from trusting my judgment even more.  After all, no one can be right all the time. She knew that!

The first time I said “I am wrong. You are right.” was not easy. It caught in my throat.  But, when I finally began to entertain her ideas and act upon them, an amazing thing happened. Her trust in my judgment grew. Our arguments became less volatile and we came up with better solutions.

As a leader, if I can lead my team to come up with better solutions because I accept the idea that I can be wrong, then why wouldn’t I?  The only answer is pride.  A leader who believes his role is to always be right is not only arrogant, but delusional as well.

A leader who is open to the possibility that he is fallible will engender trust from his team.  Because he is open to their solutions, better solutions will be found and each individual will have buy in as well.

The Bottom Line:

If a marriage is the most significant relationship a person is going to enter into voluntarily, it makes sense that the lessons learned in that relationship would translate into the relationships leaders have at work.

It’s been over 24 years since we made our commitment to each other in front of God, family and friends. Just like becoming a leader, a successful marriage is journey not a destination. 

We celebrate our anniversary today. I think we are just starting to get the hang of it!  I may be just hitting my stride as a leader as well!


What other marriage lessons can help us become better leaders?