Guiding Principles For Leadership That Works

There are almost as many leadership theories as there are would-be practitioners.

Many of those theories—or call them frameworks or philosophies—have excellent underpinnings.

I’ve found that, regardless of the latest leadership formula you may choose to try, a few simple guiding principles can always be helpful.

Keep it simple. Go back to basics.

The stones in the Jefferson Memorial were deteriorating badly. The initial, knee-jerk plan was to replace the stones with fresh ones hauled up from a quarry in southern Virginia. This would cost a gazillion tax dollars and require closing the memorial to tourists for many months.

So some simple questions were asked.

Why were the stones deteriorating? Because they were frequently cleaned with harsh chemicals.

Why was this cleaning necessary? Because pigeons were leaving too many calling cards.

Why all the pigeons? They fed on the heavy spider population.

Why so many spiders? They were attracted by a huge moth population.

Why all the moths? The moths were attracted by the monument’s lights during their twilight swarming frenzy.

Solution: Turn on the lights one hour later.

This is systems thinking, examining the big picture to reveal the multiplicity of causes and effects. Smart organizations use it to find simple and cost-effective solutions to a wide range of performance issues. They sort through the loops and links. They ask the right questions. They avoid asking the wrong questions. They diagnose before they prescribe.

Make results, not excuses.

Denial can cost you a fortune at the auto shop if you postpone that oil change too long. Denial can choke the life out of a marriage when one partner refuses to make small adjustments to accommodate the other. Denial can kill airplane passengers when pilots ignore the warning signals of their navigation systems.

Denial does damage in organizations, too.

When marginal performance is only marginally differentiated (if at all) from excellence. When people invest energy in assigning blame rather than in solving problems. When rank weighs more than a good idea. When assumptions go unchallenged. When opinions go untested. When feedback goes unheeded.

Denial causes smart people to do dumb things because they prefer not to see, or simply can’t see, a warning signal. It’s sometimes described as selective amnesia or blinders. In most cases, it’s not a character flaw. It’s simply a part of being human. Then results hoped for are replaced by excuses and blame. It can render even the best business strategy totally impotent.

Worried about symptoms? Get real. Rush to the root causes. Create results, not excuses.

Control the journey. Draw your own map. 

Seasoned hikers wouldn’t dream of heading off into the wilderness without a map and a compass. But organizations do it every day.

Two years after In Search of Excellence reported on 43 of the best-run companies in America, 14 of the 43 firms were in financial trouble. The reason, according to a BusinessWeek study: their failure to deal effectively with change.

In other words, they lost their bearings.

Every organization is perfectly aligned to get the results it’s getting. Unsatisfied with results? Check your map and compass.

Strategic alignment is every bit as critical for organizations as it is for hikers. Call it pathfinding. Call it navigating to true north. Call it mission and vision. Call it taking responsibility for shaping events. Call it good leadership. Call it smart business. Call it being change-friendly.

It’s not a destination, it’s a journey. Take charge.

Want to lead? Be a gardener. Go for growth. 

A first tendency of many business people is to fix things. After all, they’re paid to solve problems, so the metaphor of the mechanic seems natural.

But successful leaders invest energy in growing rather than fixing.

They know the organization is a living organism with many interrelated elements, capable of extinction or growth. Successful leaders are gardeners. They don’t rely on chance. They create a nurturing environment—or culture—and they cultivate with care.

Successful gardeners need reliable tools. They ask lots of questions. And they develop diagnostic tools to analyze their organization’s strengths and vulnerabilities, to address root causes, and to nurture their people so they can enjoy a continuous harvest of strong performance.

Be a leader. Be a gardener.

Lead the whole person. Lift your people. 

Some managers seem to regard people as stomachs. They try to motivate only with salary and benefits. It’s the old notion of just be grateful you have a job. In today’s economy, it’s a fast ticket to low performance and high turnover.

Successful organizations use a different approach. They lead the whole person.

People have heads. They want to grow and develop intellectually. They want to learn. Give them a good reason and they’ll even stretch their own comfort zones.

People have hearts. They want to be treated with kindness, respect and dignity. They want good relationships. They want to feel appreciated.

People have spirits. They want meaning in life. They want context. They want to be inspired. And they want to know that what they contribute really matters, that they fit.

Is this just warm and fuzzy stuff for soft people?

Not at all. It’s the key to the hard realities of high performance.

Believe it.

Practice it.

 

For more ideas to help you work smarter, get a copy of LeaderSHOP: Workplace, Career and Life Advice from Today’s Top Thought Leaders.

 

 

 

This column was previously published by Forbes where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.

Rodger Dean Duncan

Rodger Dean Duncan is bestselling author of CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP and a regular contributor to Forbes and Fast Company magazines. He is widely known for his expertise in the strategic management of change, for organizations and for individuals. In 1972 he founded Duncan Worldwide to train and develop leaders. His clients have included some of the top companies in the world, as well as cabinet officers in two White House administrations.
Rodger Dean Duncan