Global Resilience Solutions > 2013 > July

The Life-Giving Principles of True Leadership

He who knows men is clever; he who knows himself has insight.  He who conquers men has force; he who conquers himself is truly strong.

-Lao Tzu




Are you seeing disastrous “leadership” around you, perhaps at your workplace or in other organizations you belong to, or in society at large?  Today we’re going to talk about WHY that happens and the critical principles of true leadership.  So if you’re looking at a case of incompetent or dishonest leadership and asking yourself that ever-important question (“What SHOULD this situation look like?”), today you’re going to find some help getting the answers you seek.

Are you yourself in a position of leadership?  Careful… don’t be too quick to say no!  As you’ll soon see, we’re all in at least one position of leadership and we need to make damn sure we get it right.  The keys are here…


The Leadership Difference

The manager views people as tools, “human resources,” bits of machinery to be procured according to standardized requirements and fit into an organizational structure.  It doesn’t matter whether the vision into which he tries to fit people is his own or someone else’s- the fact remains that the manager relates to his subordinates defensively, as cogs to be kept spinning and a potential source of problems to be contained.  Especially in the public sector and in high-functioning private-sector organizations, this process of containing employee problems has been developed into a fine art, replete with best practices and proper procedures- all of which is a good thing, as it smoothes the relationship between employer and employee and helps to ensure fairness.

But while leaders would do well to pay attention to best practices, there still remains a leap of consciousness to be made.  The leader first changes him- or herself to change the organization.  Where a new manager comes in with a new agenda, talking about “how things are going to be different now” and telling everyone what they have to do differently, a leader recognizes that for change to be real, it must start at the top.  From this realization, the defensive relationship of the manager to his pesky employees transforms into something very different.  A leader regards people not as interchangeable parts, but as living organisms whose growth will grow the organization.

The objective of a manager is to control and rationalize the people beneath him, to make them less of an obstacle to implementing the models he and the institution have devised.  The objective of a leader is to do everything possible to lead people to substantial achievement and to reward and empower them in order to drive greater achievement. 


Principles of Leadership


1. You create the organization you deserve.  The tone of the organization is set by the leader.  Subordinates are very attuned to the moods, attitudes and thought-patterns of their bosses, and will mirror them back.  From an energetic point of view, we could even call this entrainment- the boss’s energy sets the tone for the organization’s energy.

If the boss is energetic and optimistic, they will be energetic and optimistic.  If the boss is irresolute, they will be cowardly.  If unsure, they will be unsure.  If thoughtful of them, they will be thoughtful of him or her.  If the leader sets an example, her department heads will set examples.  If the leader gives, they will give. If he or she takes firm and considered decisions, so will they.  If a leader creates cliques, cliques will form against him.  If the person at the top micromanages, the entire organization will be choked as though by a suffocating fume as everyone tries to force everyone else to do everything the way they think it should be done.  An angry and frustrated CEO’s emotions will echo and amplify throughout the organization until it becomes a seething and intractable mass.  The successful leader takes full and personal responsibility for these dynamics at all times.

An organization is like a spaghetti noodle.  You have to pull it from the front- you can’t push it from behind.  Whatever you want done, you have to be the first to start.  Everything to do with mindset is key to leadership.  If the leader has an attitude of unrelenting positivity, a can-do attitude and a practical, constructive mind, then the organization will plough through setbacks like a hot knife through butter.


2. Responsibility travels up, credit travels down.  The healthiest corporate cultures are based on this principle, and every successful leader knows it.  When your subordinates have done something well, taken an extra step; they deserve the credit and tangible rewards.  When something goes wrong, you take responsibility.  Be lenient with subordinates and tough on superiors, and teach your subordinates to do the same.

There is nothing more demoralizing than to see upper management raking in the cash when they have steered a company to disaster and mass layoffs, while no one below ever gets a pay raise no matter what they do.  In organizations where this is the case, the resulting dysfunctionality hangs in the air like the stink of a dead woodchuck in the ducting.  A leader must take responsibility openly for his or her own failures and learn from them, or subordinates will not do so.


3. Respect your subordinates and share their conditions.  Any leader who approaches his subordinates as though entitled by his greater experience or achievements to some sort of reverence is setting himself up for failure.  Talk with your people, have lunch with them, stay in touch with their problems and concerns, and especially their goals and personal development.  If they have trouble at home or become ill, make sure you give them time to address it.  If they work late, you work late.  If they take a pay cut, so do you.  Erwin Rommel, the infamous “Desert Fox” of the Second World War, was one of the greatest generals of all time and earned the unrelenting loyalty of his men.  How?  When the going got tough, he refused to eat anything different from what his men had to eat.  He shared their conditions so he would always know how far they could go.  You must first be loyal to your people in order to gain loyalty from them.


4. Your first job is to grow people.  An organization that does not grow people does not grow or diversify.   Get to know your people.  Ask about their hopes, ask about their difficulties.  Find out what they need and give it to them.  Let them make their mistakes and learn their jobs.  Find out what they can and want to contribute and give them that opportunity.  Your people know their jobs, and as Adam Smith says, a person focused on a particular task will have the best ideas about how to make that task more efficient.  Reward them for good ideas.  Celebrate their achievements.  Give them as much responsibility and training as they can handle.  If you aren’t stretching your people’s abilities and giving them opportunities, they will stagnate.  A hinge that is used constantly doesn’t rust shut.

Your subordinates’ suggestions should be the basis for your greatest successes.  If you fear loss of control from this, do not even try to lead.  Retired US Navy Captain Michael Abrashoff, in his book It’s Your Ship: management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy, describes how he got command of a ship which was just about on the verge of mutiny because of its previous commander’s poor leadership.  Abrashoff turned this around through a number of means, one of the most important being to reward the crew for good suggestions, a policy which ultimately made the ship the most efficient in the Navy.  Beyond that, he gave them a sense of purpose, of importance and responsibility.

Above all, find your people’s real talents (which are not necessarily the ones the hiring process cares about) and passions, and find a way to help them pursue them.  This is the shortcut to diversification and organizational growth.  If you do this habitually, you will never need to do anything more to motivate them or increase productivity.  Successful leaders look at the people and skills available to them and look for the best ways to utilize them.  The people and their skills should lead structure, not the other way around.  The more flexible you are around the talents your people bring to the table, the more your organization will prosper.


5. If you want trustworthy people, be trustworthy.  This means first of all being trustworthy in relationship to your subordinates.  If the organization cannot trust the sanity, impartiality and consistency of a leader’s reactions, they will not communicate with him, and in not trusting him, they will not support him, and in not supporting him, they will let him fail.  Be straightforward, and they will be straightforward with you.

A leader’s criteria for making key decisions, particularly personnel decisions, must always be openly stated, universally applied and transparent.  A leader may not serve his or her own agendas in dealing with her subordinates.  Rather, the leader must abide by clear and generally understood standards in personnel decisions.  Personnel decisions must be based on the central skills of the job.  Do not ever let personalities lead you to undeservedly favor someone or hold them back.  The leader who treats his organization like a club to be populated with congenial personalities will end up only with a crew of useless sycophants and yes-men.  A successful organization is not an alchemy of personalities, but a check and balance system of differing and talented personalities reinforcing one another’s blind spots and interacting in a courteous and professional manner.

A commander must be absolutely secure in his position, or if he is not, must act exactly as though he were.  To attempt to control communications among staff, to demonstrate inability to tolerate contradiction, to show passive aggression and make decisions based upon perceived personality issues, are all traits associated with insecure commanders and lead to breakdowns of morale and professionalism.

A leader may not under any circumstances denigrate any of his subordinates in front of another subordinate.  Never discuss the relative merits and demerits of your subordinates with anyone.  If possible, train yourself not even to think about these things.  Such opinions easily become self-fulfilling prophecies when you begin reacting differently to different people.  You will inhibit underappreciated subordinates from giving their best and perhaps demonstrating quality you do not see.

The Emperor Taizong, founder of the Tang Dynasty and widely regarded as one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history, not only required his officials to criticize him honestly, but rewarded them for doing so.

People feel trusted when they are given a responsibility and left to carry it out- a micromanager cannot create an atmosphere of trust.

Be honest with your people.  Simple honesty counts for a great deal.


6. Protect your people.  The job of a leader is to protect and represent his/her people.  There are three basic elements to this: protection from bureaucracy, protection from toxic influences, and protection from bad leaders.

People should always come before institution, unless the institution has principle on its side.  If institutional red tape or administrative nonsense is harming your people, you have a duty to represent their interests.  If, however, one of your subordinates has done something seriously wrong, you must not stop the truth from emerging.  This has been the institutional impulse in abuse cases in both the Canadian RCMP and the US military in recent years, greatly degrading the reputations of both institutions.

A good leader must never hesitate to weed out those who are doing manifest harm, are acting without professional courtesy on a regular basis, will not be educated and make themselves intolerable to their colleagues and subordinates.  If they are willing to learn and change after being confronted, fine.  But to protect them beyond the point where they have proven themselves unteachable is destructive of morale and cohesion.

Astonishingly bad and unprofessional managers survive because neither the institution nor their superiors have taken the necessary corrective measures.  It is essential to the health of every command structure that demotion always be on the table, not on a whim but as the inevitable answer to incompetence and the abuse of power.  Protecting your people means first and above all protecting them from the abuse of power in any form.


7. Teach your people by example to behave honorably, and you will be able to do anything.  A few weeks ago, we talked about principle and how it relates to business.  The first thing to know, then, is why you are in business.  What principles are at stake for you in that business, what values do you take pride in upholding?  If the answer is none, it’s time to think about a new profession.  The most motivated leaders proceed from a positive impact they wish to make on the world.

A leader needs a deep moral center, and must be answerable to it.  No institutionally-given principle can substitute for the inner grounding of comprehensive and constant moral exercise, and no leader can keep herself or her organization grounded without this inner light.

Never promise anyone anything unless as a general and permanent policy.  If you can do something for someone, do it.  If a reward is deserved, give it, though the recipient is your worst enemy.  This will win you the respect of everyone.

Never threaten anyone.  A threat which you may later regret or be unable to carry out shows weakness.  If you see something requiring punishment, punish with a fitting and proportionate punishment, your best friend just as your nemesis, thus showing impartiality.

Reward loudly, thank often, and make a point of looking forward to the person’s next achievement to create a positive attitude moving forward.  Discipline quietly and without undue demonstration.

Treasure your mavericks.  Exceptional people have low tolerances for institutional limitations.

Be without pretension, and prize substance over appearance.  You can have one or the other, in the same sense that a photon may be observed as a wave or a particle but not both.

Cultivate a sense of professionalism and pride in yourself and your people, and especially in dealing with clients.

Empty your sense of self and act as the leader who is responsible for your team, and you will not have to worry about making mistakes.

Prize truth for itself and stand up for your principles.  Doing this consistently will ground and cement your team with purpose in a way you can you can barely imagine.  This is where real loyalty is born.

Never ask a subordinate to do something dishonest- otherwise, the message you send is that dishonesty to get ahead is alright.  Dishonesty will multiply in the organisation, destroying trust, cohesion and morale.  (There are exceptions, usually to avoid harm caused by a stupid rule, but this is something that you both have to understand.)


As you embrace these principles, you will find your leadership style changing.  Managers who bluster or expostulate at length or shout at subordinates where no matter of principle is at stake are weak.  A real leader knows how to inspire obedience and make corrections with a few well-chosen, quiet words and nothing more.

It is absolutely unacceptable for a leader to let his or her decisions be dominated by either fear or anger.  This is the sign of a weak leader, and there is nothing more dangerous, particularly when they start making “tough” decisions.  The art of balance in tough situations is not the province of the tough-minded, but of open and confident minds.

A leader must not abdicate moral responsibility to rules or orders from higher authority.  You alone are responsible for your team’s actions until the moment you resign.

Leaders must support their subordinates in achievement to the hilt, push them to develop their talents and follow their passions, show them that they can do things they themselves had never dreamed, and make sure that they correct their mistakes.  Every failure is merely an obstacle to be overcome.  To take this attitude, even on a small scale, on a team, with your family and friends, or in business, public administration or politics, will have an immediate and positive impact on the people around you and on your personal resilience.  Measure the leaders you see around you by these criteria, and you will be able to spot real leadership when you see it, and protect yourself from weak leaders and managers.


Embracing the principles of leadership is fundamental to building your personal resilience.  How so?  Why are these principles so important for you if you don’t feel you’re in a position of leadership at the moment?  These principles are vital to your resilience whether or not you’re in an official leadership position right now because true leadership is NOT a position; it’s a state of being.  Every true leader is first and foremost the leader of his or her own life and that is the very foundation of personal resilience.


~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

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