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Three Leadership Priniciples That Have Guided My Career

February 19, 2010

A couple of months ago I received a call from a big-time pastor in my area doing sabbatical research on the subject of Leadership. I honestly don’t consider myself a leadership expert by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I think the whole subject of leadership has been quite sufficiently covered to the point of nauseating over-saturation, such that it has practically lost all substance of meaning (Everyone’s a Leader!).

Besides, I already wrote the defining summary of business leadership with my scorching post, How To Not Suck as a Leader. What else was there left to say?

Nevertheless, someone gave my name to someone else, who called someone who called someone who blah blah blah and eventually this pastor contacted me, insisting that I be interviewed as part of his research project.

On the appointed day, the pastor arrived at my office to conduct the interview.

It’s funny – we business and working professionals faithfully visit our pastor’s place of work week after week every Sunday morning, but when was the last time your pastor has returned the favor and visited you at your office? But there he was, sitting in the front pew of my office with pen and pad in hand, eagerly waiting to receive my Message.

After a bit of small-talk, the pastor got right down to business and started the interview by blurting out this question:

“What are the three most important principles of leadership that have guided you in your career?”
Well. I’ve never really thought of that before. Ever. But it’s a great question.
Except that it caught me completely off guard, since I hadn’t prepared anything for him ahead of time. So I did what comes most naturally to me in times like this: I started talking, and trusted that my subconscious would start filling in the blanks as I spoke.

An hour later into the conversation, I had identified three compelling leadership principles that have guided my career. Here’s what I told him.

1. Be Real

The idea of Authentic Leadership is getting thrown around quite a bit lately, and for good reason. There is something to be said for a leader having the self-awareness and integrity of being true to one’s self, knowing your  weaknesses, and being comfortable in your own skin.

The only way to reach this is by being open to the experiences that you get, making the most of them. And not all of them will be good. Just the same, getting beat up once in a while allows you to learn and grow and mature. The key is being able to be reflective and learn from those experiences, and apply those lessons right away.

For me, authenticity ultimately means that I have a sincere connection to my work, that I truly care for the good of the company and the people I am working with and for.  Also, I believe authenticity plays itself out in managing people – the ability to be real, honest, not playing games, and telling the truth.

2. Be Comfortable with Ambiguity

The ability to deal positively with the uncertain and the unknown has been a cornerstone for growth in my leadership capacity. I love process and controls in an organization, but there are so many unpredictable variables and factors beyond our control that will impact our decisions, where we can not see or control the outcome, and we will not know the answers. 

In spite of this, I have learned to make the commitment to dive in, get fully engage in what I am doing, and have faith that eventually things will work out. Without really knowing. Leadership requires patience, faith, and persistance.

Accepting this reality improves my attitude and optimism, which ultimately impacts the people around me. I find myself saying things like,

“We’ll get through. We’ll figure it out. Let’s roll up our sleeves and just give it some time.”

I like Woody Allen’s quote that says, “80% of success is just showing up every day.” Just keep showing up every day and keep at it, and the results will prove out.

3. You’ve Got to Have Some Conviction

It can be difficult dealing with ambiguity, but at some point someone has to put a stake in the ground and make a decision about what to do next. This is where it comes in handy to have an opinion and make a decision.  Right or wrong, for better or worse, whether everyone agrees with you or not, this is the ultimate test of being a leader.

Knowing when to take initiative and which direction to go is generally a result of the sum total of whatever experiences I’ve had so far. Gut instinct combined with asking the right questions often gets me to the point where I can eventually make that decision. The act of taking charge over the future will then mobilize and motivate people to march with me towards that end-point, regardless of the obstacles.

So, there you have it. The three princples of leadership, off the top of my head.

Oh, and there is one more thing that I would have added if he had allowed for a fourth principle:

Be nice to people.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. February 19, 2010 8:09 am

    First thing I read this am, before I was out of bed even. Not bad. Have to say I felt leadership has been done to death too, but you got it. In my humble opinion.

    I liked that. Simple, useful everyday, anywhere. Easy to remember. Thank you.

    • February 20, 2010 8:57 am

      What an honor, for my blog to be the first thing you stumbled upon before getting of bed. And you were so coherent, even! Thanks for the feedback.

  2. February 19, 2010 9:00 am

    The most authentic advice often comes from time-tested individuals who don’t claim to be experts. Thanks for taking time.

    • February 20, 2010 8:59 am

      Yes, there’s something about being with someone you can tell is not trying to impress you or put on an act… It makes them more appealing and genuine. Trying to impress or over-do the name-dropping gives off the opposite effect.

  3. February 19, 2010 9:22 am

    Your advice is easy to read and hard to do.

    Be real. I’ve seen being real turn into self-centered indulgence. Having said that, being real builds trust and loyalty.

    Sometimes our frailties take us further than our strengths when it comes to connecting with people.

    Thanks for a useful challenging post

    Leadership Freak
    Dan Rockwell

    • February 22, 2010 6:22 am

      Dan – If you read the link to the Harvard Business article on Authentic Leadership, it’s whole premise is that authenticity comes with self-reflection, gaining feedback from others, and an honest assessment of one’s own strenghts and weaknesses. This kind of humble character-building basically rules out self-centered indulgence. An authentic leader could not get away with that, by the very nature of the definition. So I obviously did not mean that being real means indulging in one’s every emotional whim. It is much more about character-building and self-awareness to avoid that type of behavior. As you said, it is paradoxically our frailities that sometimes take us farther as a leader!

      • February 22, 2010 7:44 am

        Thanks for your observations… Right on! And thanks for stopping by my blog to say hi. I look forward to following your work.


  4. February 19, 2010 12:00 pm

    I think I’ve seen too much “I have the title therefore I am a leader” type leadership over the years. This makes so much more sense, and has at least one additional advantage: anyone, at any level, can practice it.

  5. February 19, 2010 9:58 pm

    i suspect that those who are not leaders can gain the most from knowing what a good leader is.

  6. February 19, 2010 10:19 pm

    I guess I am most drawn to the “Be real” aspect.

    There are so many leaders who are phonies…and we see through them. The real ones are tough, but you respect them.


  7. February 20, 2010 9:04 am

    I agree with you all about the “Be Real” as one of the most critical aspects for all of us, as Glynn says, in interacting with each other as leaders, friends, peers, colleagues, whatever. Nancy and David – it’s true that most people can see right through phony and puffed-up arrogant behavior. Whenever I have a bad feeling about someone (even if they are very important people), I start by asking “is it me? Or was that person acting like a real arrogant jerk?” Usually everyone else sees the same thing.

  8. simplifylearning permalink
    February 20, 2010 4:46 pm

    i learn from you, thank you.

    blessings for the working week ahead.


  9. February 21, 2010 9:40 pm

    Good job, Brad, as usual. I think another quality of a leader is the ability to recognize ability and potential. I don’t claim to be a leader, but I sure recognized early on that you embody both. Another, I would think, is following up on that and helping mentor and develop future leaders. I still don’t even know what you really do, but I’ll bet you do a darn good job of it and that your leadership is by solid, patient, consistent example. ~donkimrey

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