3 Leadership Lessons From Robin Williams

Posted by:

I wasn’t going to write about Robin Williams today. So much has already been said. But when I sat down to write, I couldn’t get him out of my mind. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much of my professional life in the comedy business, or maybe because it’s such a rare thing when a big national story hits you on a personal level. I don’t know. Anyway, I’m writing about Robin Williams.

But rather than focus on the news of the past few days, I want to focus on what we can learn from Robin. Specifically, what we as leaders can learn from Robin. Of course, there are always countless lessons we can learn from someone as successful as Robin Williams, but I want to talk about three.


[Tweet “Natural talent alone isn’t enough. Yyou need to put in the hours. You need to do the #work.”]

1. Do the work.

When Robin Williams was just starting out—when he was playing the small clubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles—he would routinely do an open mike set in one club, drive an hour to do another open mike in another club, then drive back to the first club to do another set in the late show, and then do a show with an improv troupe. This was all on the same night. And then he’d do it again the following night. And again the night after that. Did Robin have natural talent? You bet he did. But natural talent alone isn’t enough. Whatever business you’re in, and whatever your level of competence, you need to put in the hours. You need to do the work. You need to practice your craft. That’s what will take you from average—good, even—to world-class.

2. Take (calculated) risks.

Occasionally, club comedians (particularly those in LA or New York) will get word that there’s somebody important in the audience. A talent scout for The Tonight Show or Letterman, maybe a big agent who could make a career. When this happens, most comedians fall back on their proven “A” material. When the stakes are that high, you don’t take chances. Unless you’re Robin Williams. When Robin found himself in that situation, he didn’t play it safe. He didn’t resort to his stock material. Instead, Robin went out there and improvised. He played without a net. And he was brilliant. Here’s the point: Robin Williams took a risk, but it wasn’t a foolish risk. It was a calculated risk. Robin knew that he was great at improvising. It was what he did best. Could he have flopped? Sure. But the odds were with him, and he knew it. As a leader, sometimes you have to play without a net. Sometimes you don’t have all the information you need, or you don’t have the exact right people on your team, or you don’t have a big enough budget. In those cases, you have to try something new. You have to take a risk. But just remember: there are foolish risks, and there are calculated risks. Don’t mix the two up.

3. Give back.

Robin Williams gave back in many ways. His work on Comic Relief raised thousands and thousands of dollars to help the homeless. He would routinely help other comics who were trying to get their start. And I’m sure he gave back in ways that you and I will never know. He never lost his sense of gratitude. As leaders, it’s easy for us to get so focused on our own issues and challenges that we forget about those around us who could use our help. Robin Williams was a leader, and he never forgot. Make sure you don’t either.


I never met Robin Williams, but like many, I feel as if I knew him. He left us with countless moments of brilliance that are just a click away. And he left us with some important lessons that will make us better leaders, and better people.

Thank you, Robin.

Motivational Speaker Bill Stainton

Robin Williams, 1951-2014


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
  Related Posts