Real leadership often defies the rules

Leading an organization, whether public, private or non-profit, requires making tough decisions.
It’s just part of the job, whether it’s in the job description or not.
Because as they say, it’s lonely at the top.

Business school classes in leadership offer sound advice based on solid research and practical experience.  In theory, it all works beautifully.  You make the rules, you set the example, you toe the mark:  Everyone follows your lead.  Leadership training is important even if it doesn’t prepare you for every scenario.   

But in practice, results aren’t always so predictable.  Sure, personality matters.  Some people are better leaders than others.  And unexpected situations arise that defy all logic.  Trust me, I’ve been in business long enough to say I’ve seen it all – until I see the next crazy event.

To become the best leader you can be, you must take advantage of every opportunity to learn and improve.  Learning from others’ mistakes and experiences can save you plenty of misery and embarrassment.  

But even more important, in my view, is setting standards for what you will and will not do, and what you will and will not tolerate.  Take the time to determine what values are important to you and your organization.  Make sure everyone you lead understands what is expected.  Then practice what you preach.

One of my favorite examples of well-defined leadership is attributed to Kent Keith, which he titled his “Paradoxical Commandments of Leadership.”  I’ve added my thoughts to these “ten commandments,” and hope they help you prepare your value statement.

1.   People are illogical, unreasonable and self-centered.  Love them anyway.  I’ve learned that co-workers and customers do not always respond as I would hope.  But if I want to keep them as colleagues and customers, I need to cut them some slack.

2.   If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.  Do good anyway. If you are doing well, then you should be doing good.  The good you do will outweigh the criticism you endure.  In truth, it would be more selfish to abandon your good works in order to avoid conflict. 

3.   If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies.  Succeed anyway. There will always be those who will want to jump on your bandwagon or be jealous of your good fortune.  That shouldn’t prevent you from doing the best you can do.

4.   The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.  Do good anyway.  Do good because it’s the right thing to do, not because you are looking for lifetime recognition.  Remember, virtue is its own reward.

5.   Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.  Be honest and frank anyway.  I maintain that lying and cheating make you more vulnerable.  Being honest and frank translates into trust, which is the most important five-letter word in business.

6.   The biggest men with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men with the smallest minds.  Think big anyway.  Small people with small minds rarely accomplish big things, and they are not leaders.  Take some risks, and trust your judgment.

7.   People favor underdogs, but follow only top dogs.  Fight for a few underdogs anyway.  Top dogs were underdogs once, too.  Great leaders mentor their replacements because they know they won’t be the top dog forever.  They also have a knack for recognizing talent.

8.   What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.  Build anyway.  You can’t predict the future, but you can be prepared to face problems with careful planning.

9.   People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.  Help people anyway.  A helping hand might get slapped away.  But if you stand by and do nothing when you have the capacity to be helpful, shame on you.  That’s not leadership, that’s cowardice.

10. Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.  Give the world the best you have anyway.  Put a smile on your face and give your detractors a big toothy target.  You never have to apologize for doing your best.  You should apologize if you do less than your best. 

A well-defined purpose is central to effective leadership.  It doesn’t just happen.  You have to know why you are doing what you are doing.  Otherwise, how will you know where you are going?

Mackay’s Moral:  When you lead with a purpose, people have a reason to follow you.

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