November 16, 2018

Tom Atema Jr.’s 52 Lessons for Leaders to Learn and Apply in Order to Get Better: The First 13

This past summer I spent some time reflecting over what I have done well and why it has worked for me. During that time I wrote a list of what I have learned that makes me a better me. A better leader, a better coworker, a better husband, a better father, a better person. I think it’s important to be intentional about accomplishing goals, and by writing them down I am able to be intentional about sharing what has worked for me as a way to help others get better.

Why 52? I want to be intentional about making sure I know why I believe these are important, so I began drafting my list of “52”—one area to focus on every week of the year. I use the word “drafting” because I don’t view the list as a final version—this is the kind of list that by its very nature demands ongoing editing and tweaking as I grow and learn. But it’s been very helpful in centering my thoughts in lots of areas.

For the purposes of this blog, and because 52 points at once is a lot to take in, I’m going to break up my list into four blog installments with 13 lessons in each. Your list could be different, but perhaps this one I’ve put together will serve as a starting point, at least. I encourage you to use it as best serves you in making a better you! I don’t have all these perfected; there are days when I don’t apply my own lessons—that is why writing them down and focusing on one each week helps me get better.

  1. Lead yourself first.

You cannot expect anyone to follow you—coworkers, contractors, suppliers, vendors, children—or trust you with their business or time if you are not taking care of yourself. You need to be on a path of intentional, perpetual growth and strive to get better—in leadership and also in life. Take care of your mind, body, and soul on a daily basis in order to get better.

  1. Be you.

Be yourself . . . not who others think you are, or who they think you are supposed to be. Each one of us is different and that makes us awesome, especially when those differences can be used together to make some amazing things happen. Each of us has been given some special talents that others don’t have, and others are better at some things than you are. Your role is to intentionally get better at being the best you that you can be.

  1. Define your future.

Taking some time to write down your future hopes and dreams will help you gain so much clarity in what you need to do every day—and maybe more importantly, what you don’t need to do. Ask yourself, What do I want to be known for and by whom at the end of my life? By defining what you want in the future, you’re able to make better decisions today.

  1. Have guardrails.

Some people call these rules or principles­–I have found that I need defined guardrails in my life. My wife and I take a trip each year, and part of that trip is reviewing my personal “rules” or guardrails. She is the one I have asked to keep me accountable and grounded. We all have past experiences that have shaped us, and we all have current circumstances that need to be considered, and need an intentional way to reach our future hopes and dreams. Developing this practice allows others to speak into what you need to watch out for, which also helps to make you better.

  1. It’s okay to say no.

Do you often feel guilty about not wanting to do something, or feel obligated to say yes to something that isn’t a fit for your skills, or maybe it’s just bad timing? It’s okay to say I cannot do that, or I cannot right now. You cannot do everything you want for everyone you want every time you want. Having your future defined (and guardrails in place) allows you to not get “busy” with things that are not helping you, or what you care about, get better.

  1. Exercise your body.

There was a time that I did not take care of my body, and that affected every part of my being. Once I found a system that worked for me (e.g., I need a trainer so that I have an appointment to keep), my confidence started to build and helped me be better at everything else I was doing. There are many other benefits to taking care of your body, but I have found that if you can show that you care about your physical body, it shows people (e.g., potential clients, staff, vendors) that you care enough to take care of what you have been given, and then they may be more inclined to trust you.

  1. Choose your friends wisely.

Those you choose to spend time with—and know that it’s a choice—will influence you more than almost anything else in life. Be very picky with whom you spend time, so as not to invite negativity around (I don’t know about you, but I get sucked into that easily). I prefer to have fewer, better friends than a lot of people who are not making me better.

  1. Discover your priorities.

This is something I do on a regular basis—as my current circumstances change, so do my priorities. For example, for some seasons I need to travel more, so work is a higher priority than other months when my family needs me more. There is a balance, but part of getting better is being able to pivot as needed—so really pinpoint what matters most to you, and know that life is full of seasons that come and go.

  1. Know your children.

My two kids are so different and amazing; I don’t want to miss the limited time I have with them as kids. These are the only two people on earth who can call me Dad, and I want to know them and have them, when they are able, choose to know me. A lot of things can change in life, but your family does not. Therefore, have guardrails in your life that allow for intentional time to spend with family, time that is focused on them and their interests.

  1. Someone is watching.

I was always told growing up that people are always watching . . . and I never really believed it. As an adult and leader, I now know that it’s so true! You never want to be a hypocrite, so try hard to be yourself at all times and don’t allow one stupid decision to destroy what you have (that is all it takes—one stupid decision). This may make you seem a little strange to some people, and this is not to say you will not adapt to the circumstances; but when it matters, you be you.

  1. Lead up and down.

I have seen so many people “lead up” to their boss so well that they don’t lead the people who are peers or whose positions are subordinate to theirs. One of my mentors demonstrated “leading up and down” so well for many years; she made sure everyone—her boss, the janitor, the staff, the guests, vendors, everyone—felt appreciated and valued. This was intentional on her part and something I strive to get better at, because when it’s done right, it makes everyone better.

  1. Love your life partner.

A “lifelong commitment” is exactly what it is—take it seriously. Before we got engaged, my wife and I decided that divorce would never be an option and that we would do what we needed to do to protect the commitment we made to each other, no matter what others say or choose to do. Love is a choice that is not always easy, but when I made a lifelong commitment to my wife, I meant it.

  1. Keep your word.

If I tell someone I will be someplace or that I will do something, I do it to the best of my ability. The simplest way to grow and protect your reputation is to be someone who can be counted upon. That helps your family, business, and you yourself get better.


Tom Atema Jr. is the founder and CEO of AP Live, the premier audio-visual company for meetings and events—where quality is always first, and quotes are always free. For information contact his team via