9 Leadership Principles You Can Believe In

Trust your instincts. How many times have we heard this phrase as advice for leaders? We shouldn't deny the importance of leadership instincts, but at the same time, we also should view them with skepticism. Many of our “instincts” are actually habits that were formed over decades in many different environments.

gettyimages-147205281-compressorThis century has brought with it a quantum change in how people perceive leadership. Leaders today must be more engaged and collaborative with colleagues, more in touch with employees, more conscientious of what they do and say, more concerned about diversity and fairness, more accountable for the security, honesty and welfare of their companies. Leaders have to weigh these new expectations, their past experiences, and their leadership instincts. The concern is that learned habits and conventional wisdom will keep you from doing what your instincts would normally have you do.

The following are 9 leadership principles I believe in. They might seem counterintuitive by today’s standards, but in my mind they are smart, practical and instinctive.

1. Embrace failure. Many times people need to fail to succeed—to grow and know what not to do. By accepting failure in themselves and others as an inevitable part of a career, leaders will find more long-term success.

2. Don’t try to be smarter than everyone else. Good leaders understand how to draw intelligence from those around them. President Gerald Ford—someone whom I worked for in my early career—has been quoted as saying, “I had a lot of experience with people smarter than I am.” Being a leader is not about being the smartest, bravest or boldest. It has more to do with being directionally correct and surrounding yourself with people who compensate for your gaps. Knowing your weaknesses and vulnerabilities is an old battle strategy, and also a good one for your career.

“Don’t try to be smarter than everyone else.

3. Don’t try to make friends with everyone. Casey Stengel, the famous New York Yankee manager, used to say to his players, “Don’t drink in the hotel bar; that’s where I do my drinking.” As hard as it can be—it is natural to want to befriend people you work with—this rule is important. You lose objectivity when employees become after-hours friends.

4. Don’t make a lot of rules. I think companies have too many rules for employees to abide by. More important are standards that the CEO and other executives establish and model in the work they do. With clear and high standards, senior leaders are respected; rules do not win respect.

5. Make timely decisions. Leadership, in my definition, is not the act of decision-making. It is the act of being responsible for a collective group of people every day. You don’t have to prove you are a leader by making a decision every day. Let people make their own decisions. As a CEO, most of my time is spent listening, recruiting and implementing strategy.

6. Don’t delegate responsibility. Rather, delegate tasks, but keep the responsibility. This may sound like semantics, but delegating, while absolutely essential, does not abdicate a leader from responsibility for the results. If I delegate the management of a project to a colleague and the project fails, the blame falls on me.

7. Don’t force teamwork. I’m not a big believer in teamwork, a much-overused term. To me it is important for colleagues to understand that it is in their mutual self-interest to get along and work well together. But they don’t have to be teammates on most things they do. They simply have to put the company first. They don’t have to have lasting, emotional bonds to each other. They have to work well together.

8. Have fun. Too many leaders embrace the “martydom of effort.” I believe that being responsible for an organization and its employees is why CEO work is pleasurable. Leadership is not a curse.

9. Be the same person every day. Be nice. Contrary to the old expression, nice men and women do not finish last. One must be pleasant and generous on a consistent basis to succeed. Kindness also earns you true respect from those around you. One cliche I like is ‘you catch more flies with sugar than vinegar’.

Yes, the world and leadership requirements are changing around us in this century. But these tried and true methods will never change.


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