The Basic Principles of Leadership
January 23, 2019
I received my first opportunity to lead a company when I was in my late 20’s. Not only does that feel like an eternity ago, but at this point, it actually is! Before taking on the role, my mentor provided me with four leadership principles that have shaped my professional life ever since. In reflection, these rules seem a bit obvious; however, judging by today’s business and political headlines, maybe not! Paying forward the mentorship that I received from John Brigham, I would like to share them with you.
Troops eat first: John’s father learned this principle while fighting in the U.S. Army in WWII. This of course is meant to be literal and figurative. As a leader, we are the stewards of those that work for us. Further, great leaders put their people in the best position to succeed and take responsibility for all outcomes, good or bad. Trust me – this does not go unnoticed.
Coalesce around the goal: This principle has a few points, so let’s unpack it. First, create a safe environment for your reports to share their perspectives. Needless to say, you can’t afford to have a roomful of yes-men and yes-women. In an interesting historical reference, Winston Churchill actually created a special group to provide him the unfiltered truth from the frontlines to offset the yes-men that he had inherited.
Next – listen! Just as talented people will hold back if they feel unsafe to speak up, they won’t waste their breath if they believe their counsel will fall on closed ears. Further, if you’ve hired properly, you have experts around you. You’re paying for expertise, you might as well get your money’s worth.
Finally, as the leader, you own the final decision. If you have given your team an opportunity to voice their opinions and debate the scenario and potential outcomes, they should respect your final decision even if you select a direction different from their recommendation. Now, to be clear, I am not suggesting leadership by democracy. You cannot delegate decision making or ownership of the outcome.
Candor – 100% of the time, 100% with respect, and 100% mutual: As many of my fellow Kellogg alumni can attest, the great Harry J. Kraemer frequently stated that leaders must always be honest and respectful with everyone in their respective organization. Leaders must be candid with their direct reports because honest feedback helps people improve at their job and understand the expected outcome. However, today’s environment has led many “leaders” to believe that the need to be candid gives them license to be a walking volcano. This couldn’t be a bigger mistake. At best, abrasive delivery causes the receiver to ignore the message.
While abusive candor is reprehensible, so too is silence due to conflict avoidance. If someone consistently underperforms, as the leader, you must address it honestly. Even if you find that the person does not have the necessary skills for the position, an honest conversation coupled with a respectful transition is a much better outcome for everyone than the employee ultimately feeling blindsided when dismissed for poor performance, or even worse, left in a position that he or she is incapable of performing successfully.
Finally, you should expect candor to flow in both directions. As a leader, you must seek feedback from the organization. The goal of the feedback is to ensure that your message is received optimally, and as previously stated, you are putting your team in the best possible position to succeed. If you are not, you must course-correct. To be clear, I am not suggesting that you should be “friends” with your employees or to let the tail wag the dog; however, if your team perceives you as anything short of a competent and engaged leader, you should take corrective action to improve.
Deliver life impacting negative news in person: This principle is a version of the Golden Rule, as we all want to be treated with dignity if we are terminated, demoted, passed up for promotion, etc. As innate as the Golden Rule should be, this principle is broken more than any of the others. Shortly after I took over the leadership role at the first company that I ran, I had to execute a large workforce reduction. Rather than pawn off the task on HR, I met with every person myself. By doing this myself, I garnered the respect of not only those people that I had to terminate but also the people that stayed (and fortunately, after we found our footing, I was actually able to rehire some of the people that I terminated).
Why does this matter today more than ever before? Although great leadership has been crucial since the beginning of civilization, the cost of poor leadership has never been greater. Transparency into corporate culture happens in real time via websites such as Glassdoor (and entrepreneurs, investors read the comments on these sites). Further, technology has made it much easier to find great talent and allow those people to work from anywhere. Thus, your best employees are visible to your competitors and are able to transition their employment to those competitors without much in the way of switching costs. The compounding effects of these points are nothing short of existential!
In closing, great leadership does not guarantee a company’s success but the lack of great leadership does guarantee its long run demise. I hope these points can be as useful to you as they were when I first heard them. Happy hunting.
Joe Kaiser is a Director at Mercato Partners
You can reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org