2016 / 20 February

From the Horses Mouth,Top 10 Leadership Rules


Recently I was having lunch with a friend and former coworker, rehashing old times while I demolished a steak sandwich and he ate a salad – a clear indicator that I sometimes ignore what’s good for me. I’ve been told I’m a risk taker, and that’s certainly true. Having been in a senior leadership position for quite sometime at my previous gig, we began discussing what lasting impact my particular style of leadership had on the organization.

I’ve been a haphazard student of leadership for a very long time. Not surprisingly, most of what I’ve learned has come from the school of hard knocks as well a few exceptional mentors. If you don’t have a mentor, go find one now!

Over the years I’ve developed a style of leadership that I suppose could be described as a combination of experienced intuition, risk taking, technical prowess, empathy (need a hug?), and no small amount of humor. So, the challenge I put before myself today is can I distill the leadership qualities I value the most into words that I can share in a blog post?



Without further ado and in no particular order, here are my top 10 leadership rules:

Become a student of human motivations – It’s easy to command someone that works for you. It’s much harder to influence someone to do what you want without bludgeoning them with a club. Regardless if someone works for you, is a peer, or your boss, understanding what motivates people is an incredibly useful skill. You’ve heard the expression it’s easier to catch flies with honey, right? We’ll it’s true of people’s motivations as well. If you want something from someone, particularly if it’s not something easy, you had better be willing pull those little strings that tug at their hearts and minds. If you have a peer that is driven by needing control, you’d better be willing to share control over your project if you want help. If someone is motivated by recognition and praise, then by all means give them some! The final thing to say about this particular tip is: Go take a long look in the mirror and understand your own motivations and drivers. What tugs your strings?

My 80/20 leadership rule – Some people lead from the front of the bus and others lead from the back of the back of the bus. The best leaders do both. My general rule of thumb is that I want to be out-front, in the drivers seat, about 20% of the time – setting the vision, course correcting, and removing obstacles for my teams. The other 80% of the time, I’m leading from the back – helping other leaders learn and succeed. Great leaders create more leaders. If I find that I need to be up front more than 20% of the time, it usually means there’s gap in the leadership team that needs fixing or I’ve failed to communicate our goals effectively.

Learn how to say “No”, without saying “!@#$ you!” – Ok, if you never learn to tell people “no” you’re setting yourself up for a lot of train wrecks. While telling someone you can’t or are unwilling to do something can be difficult, how they react is all about showing empathy and controlling how you deliver the news. Put yourself into their shoes, understand their pains, and communicate honestly. Articulate back to them their pain points – show them you understand and empathize with their views but explain why you feel your decision is the best choice. If necessary, give them a friendly option to escalate the issue to senior management. To often people view escalating a difference of opinion to senior management as something combative. It’s not! In these situations I tell my counterpart, “I understand your viewpoint and I want to make sure we’re making the right choice. Let’s go talk to the boss and see what they think makes the most sense.” Now, I’m not going to tell you people will always respond positively to this approach but, more often than not, it works.

If you stand still, you’re guaranteed to get shot – There is one fact that applies to virtually every business, even those that seem like institutions that have been around for hundreds of years: if you don’t move in one direction or another, eventually you’ll be out of business. As a leader, being able to make the best decision you can with the limited data at hand is essential. If you don’t have sufficient data, you’re going to need to use a little intuition combined with experience to fill in the gaps. As long as you are leading your organization generally in the right direction, you can always make course corrections along the way. If you find that you’ve made a horrendously wrong decision, halt the train and change directions. Just remember, making no decision at all is often the worse decision.

Hire into your weaknesses … duh! – This is a leadership expression that is repeated so often that I think people forget to do it, myself included. Without conscious thought, most people will hire others that are similar to themselves – we like familiarity. Unfortunately, this often means you are hiring people who share your same innate weaknesses. For example, I know I’m a risk taker. In fact, it’s one of the things that keeps me excited about the world around me. It’s also easy for me to quickly get lost in that excitement and sometimes loose site of the potential cliffs. It helps to have someone by my side and part of my leadership team that challenges my thinking and keeps me honest with myself. So, how do you know your weaknesses and what gaps you have on your leadership team? There are a variety of tools, such as Myers-Briggs, whole mind mapping exercises, and many others. All of them will provide you with some interesting insights into the composition of your leadership team and will help you figure out what’s missing. You might be surprised!

Playing builds stronger teams – I’ve met leaders who think work is for work and anything but more work is a waste of time. Quite frankly, I don’t want to ever work for those people. I think play at work is an essential part of building high performing teams. It builds strong bonds that team members lean on when things get tough. It also allows people to release steam on a regular basis and, let’s face it, most teams are under a lot of pressure these days. I’m not suggesting that everyone go and sit down in front of the company Play Station or Xbox for hours at a time, but being open to a little tomfoolery is usually worth the dividends it pays later. When I walk into an team area and hear friendly bantering, I generally know I’m looking at what is probably a high performing team.

The sun always comes up tomorrow – This rule is simple. No matter how bad things get, never forget that the sun will still come up tomorrow. It easy to let big problems overwhelm you, so try to keep perspective.

Doing more doesn’t always mean doing more! – Everyone wants you to do more with less but what they are really saying is do more of the right things and less of the stuff that doesn’t matter. If you are in a business where things are changing rapidly, often this means keep your customers close to you, being agile, and willing to accept a change of direction. The trick, of course, is knowing what matters and doesn’t matter.

Empathy builds trust – If I was ordering this list of tips, I’d probably put this one at the top. You want people to follow you because they believe in you and your vision of the future. Sometimes that means they have to follow your lead even if they don’t understand the big picture and that requires no small amount of trust. After all, you’re talking about people’s careers and livelihoods if you turn out to be wrong! Empathy means you can genuinely put yourself in someone else’s shoes; understand their motivations, fears, concerns, and doubts. Learn to talk to your team members in a way that directly addresses the things that matter to them most. Show them that you understand. Earn their trust and they will follow you to the outer edges of the solar system.

Your team will reflect your personality and values – The final thing I want to say is that teams quickly become a reflection of their leaders. That’s good and bad. They will reflect both your weaknesses as well as your strengths. That means you need to be very self-aware of your actions, particularly in situations where you are not at your best. I’ll be the first to admin, this is something I learned the hard way! So, hold yourself accountable. If you publicly do something that you feel wasn’t setting a good example, don’t be afraid to correct yourself on the spot. When you see teams or people exhibiting strong positive behaviors, point it out and thank them. It doesn’t have to be a big spectacle. Sometimes, a quick “well done” from the boss is all that’s needed.

So, that’s it! There are so many nuances and other “rules” we could talk about but I’d rather hear from you.

What have you learned as a leader or from watching those around you? Share your questions and comments below.


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