Becoming a Successful Leader – Toto Wolff and Mercedes F1

After smashing the record for the most consecutive constructors titles, Mercedes F1 is notably one of the most successful teams in Formula 1’s recent history. Behind the team of ultra-talented staff and drivers is one of my most revered leaders, Toto Wolff.

In 2019, Toto sat down with Nico Rosberg – the 2016 world champion – for his podcast and spoke about an array of topics surrounding leadership and life. This interview has some great insights into how to approach management and leadership. I thought it would be worth picking these insights apart and writing up some key takeaways we can all take on board to help us perform better. If you’re interested in watching the full version, I’ve included a link below – I’d fully recommend it!

I’m hoping this will be the start of a small series looking at inspirational leaders and summarizing lessons they teach us from books, podcasts and biographies into actionable steps we can all implement into our everyday lives. Stay tuned for the next leadership series post!

1. How to get the right opportunites

Knowing the right people is essential if you’re looking to progress. An important pre-requisite to this, however, is making sure you the seize the right opportunities – no matter how small – which let you get to know the right people and showcase your talents.

From being co-owner in an Austrian rallying team, Wolff managed to use this to meet Hans Werner Aufrecht – one of the founders behind AMG Engine Production and Development – and subsequently worked with him running German touring cars. This later presented the opportunity to work with Frank Williams and become a minority shareholder in the Williams F1 team.

Wolff’s impressive performance running Williams enabled him to be noticed by Daimler and become involved in the restructuring of their team. By showcasing his impressive knowledge of motorsport and leadership, Wolff managed to secure both a leadership and ownership role in Mercedes and push them towards multiple world titles.

Takeaways: If you’re looking to progress, you need to be prepared to start from wherever you currently are now. Wolff didn’t start by getting that massive opportunity managing Mercedes, he instead gained experience in alternative roles before jumping on worthwhile opportunities when they presented themselves. You need to find a way to get into what you’re looking to do and then work hard building your ethos and brand to then let others help you get where you’re looking to go.

2. Egomaniacs and narcissists will fail

Wolff noted that he believes egomaniacs and narcissists will eventually fail. Whilst they can get themselves a long-way; there will come a time when they believe they are the real deal and if you aren’t able to look yourself in the mirror and admit your mistakes, you’re creating a recipe for failure.

Whilst there might be many stories of people with big ego’s getting a long-way, the ones who do well and are truly happy are the ones who aren’t just a “flash in the pan”, they’re organic: they find their footing and grow slowly.

Takeaways: There’s so many convincing influencers on the internet who may try to lead you down the garden path and proclaim to you that you need to be a Machiavellian type character to be successful, however, the advice from somebody who is genuinely successful is that being genuine and consistent is much more important than overnight stardom.

3. Look after your mental health

Unfortunately, this is still a taboo topic even though we all struggle with it in a certain way. Wolff thinks it’s important to not ignore how you are feeling and to seek help when you are struggling. You should try to consult with people who are more intelligent and competent than you on the topic of mental health.

Takeaways: Don’t be ashamed to admit that something might be wrong. Find other’s who can help you understand what is going on and also encourage others to do the same. When we have physical health problems, the first thing we do is visit the doctor, so we shouldn’t neglect our mental health either.

4. Get rid of distractions

Social media is everywhere, and because of that, we never have a moment to sit down and really think for ourselves. Whenever we have a free moment, we reach for our phones and pursue escapist activities instead of focusing on the moment and where we need to be.

According to Wolff, self-reflection is exceptionally important. Even when we are working we can trick ourselves into thinking we are doing something useful when we are not; we might check our emails to just keep us busy, or stare at the computer screen hoping we will have an epiphany. What we should instead do is sit back, look out the window and give ourselves the thinking time we need once in a while.

Takeaways: We are in an age where there is more information than ever, but instead of enriching us, it’s overwhelming us. Think about that classic sculpture from Auguste Rodin which depicts somebody sitting and thinking. When was the last time you truly did that? In a world where everybody is plugged in and always working, all it might take to be more competitive than ever is stepping back and thinking.

5. Be eager to learn

Being eager to learn is exceptionally important if you want to progress. According to Wolff, we are all on a development path: we’re not frozen in time, but instead continually changing. We should aim to improve ourselves and get better at something each day.

Takeaways: Speak to intelligent people; speak to people from different backgrounds and speak to people you can learn from. Each day is a new opportunity to learn something new. Whilst tomorrow might not be the day you rise to success, the next 200 might be.

6. Success and failure

Wolff describes success as achieving your expectations and not falling short of them. He also notes that the pain of failure lasts much longer and is more intense than the feeling of winning.

If you’re looking to launch a project, make sure to plan ahead and try to look at all the possible scenarios. If you cannot cope with the worse case scenario – think twice before doing it. You should also remove all sense of entitlement: you might try your absolute hardest and still fail. Instead, appreciate the journey. As long as you tried your hardest, there’s not much else you can do other than learn from it.

Takeaways: Before doing anything, remove any sense of entitlement. Even if you studied weeks or months for that exam coming up, don’t expect to pass it – instead, go in there and prove you studied. Also, planning ahead is key, and most importantly, before doing anything which holds a degree of risk, ask yourself whether you even want to take that risk in the first place.

7. Leadership

There’s a saying at Mercedes of “See it, say it, fix it”. What this really means is that if somebody at Mercedes sees something is wrong, they should bring it up and work towards solving it. Whilst it can be painful to hear bad news, at least you have the opportunity to fix it. Something much better than the pain of realizing it’s too late to do anything. Wolff also states that a psychologically safe environment is paramount if you want to build a successful team.

When you’re looking to lead, you’re likely to approach others with differing opinions. When approaching someone who thinks differently or disagrees with you, switch out of your “Red” state of mind and change to a cooler “Blue” state of mind – Check out my summary of Perform Under Pressure to understand this better. When you face issues with emotion, you’re more likely to be in combat mode. Your end result doesn’t become what’s best for the team, it becomes beating the other person, regardless of the cost.

You should instead approach disagreements with curiosity. Ask yourself: Why does this person think differently? Am I looking at the issue wrong? Is there another perspective to this neither of us can see? When you do this, you not only engage the logical reasoning part of your brain; you also show the other person respect, something important when looking to compromise.

Takeaways: Put together a team of people who can be honest with each other, have the right values and are competent. Whilst there are tons of theories on leadership, if you don’t have the right team with the right values, any efforts are likely to be futile. You should also approach issues with curiosity instead of animosity. We can all learn something from someone. A different idea isn’t there to sidetrack you and make you fail, it’s instead there to show you things you may not have considered before.

8. Holding meetings

Wolff sometimes starts a meeting by admitting a mistake or saying a stupid joke. By doing this, you can reduce the tension in the room and make others feel more comfortable speaking up.

Takeaways: Whilst this is a simple and short point, it’s quite important. People are likely to follow what those at the top are doing. If you can show others that everyone makes mistakes – even those at the top – you’re more likely to instill a culture which embraces these mishaps as learning opportunities rather than disciplinary opportunities. We need to accept the fact that mistakes will happen, the only thing which can make us better is learning from them instead of covering them over. When you can turn a problem into an opportunity, anything which comes your way will only make you stronger.

Hope you enjoyed these insights just as much as I did! Check out the video below and let me know of other inspirational leaders who are worth listening to. I might just cover them!

2 thoughts on “Becoming a Successful Leader – Toto Wolff and Mercedes F1”

  1. The next time I read a blog, Hopefully it does not fail me as much as this particular one. After all, Yes, it was my choice to read, but I actually believed you’d have something interesting to say. All I hear is a bunch of moaning about something you could possibly fix if you were not too busy searching for attention.

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