Three Principles for Your Leadership Toolbox

Dec 13, 2021

Apple or orange? Summer or winter? Country or rock and roll? Appetizers or desserts? Read a book or watch a movie? Morning person or night person?

These questions were split-second bullets being shot at the newcomer sitting at our kitchen table. I remember the scene well. My adult children happened to all be home at the same time and one of them brought a friend home to introduce him to the family and Northwest Arkansas. I watched from the other side of the room with interest and curiosity.

Dr. Samuel Barondes, a leading psychiatrist and neuroscientist, and author of Making Sense of People said, “Although we may spend hours methodically assessing a new smartphone before deciding what we think of it, our assessment of someone’s personality keeps being made by the seat of our pants.”

I don’t know if he would approve of the method that was unfolding at my kitchen table. I think he would contend we need a more deliberate process than rapid dyads in order to read and size people up. He argues you have to uncover troublesome patterns such as compulsiveness, narcissism, sociopathy, and paranoia, and consider how this might affect you.

Well, so much for methodical process. Let’s get back to the round-table game of testing the newcomer.

The speed increased with every question because everyone was now slinging contrasts faster than anyone could assimilate them and give a thoughtful response. Then finally someone said “Last question: Walk or drive?” The new guy paused—which brought everything to an abrupt stop—and then said, “It totally depends on where you are and where you are going.”

I smiled and said, “Checkmate” under my breath.

Context is usually crucial for the best answers and the best solutions. I’ve said for years the difference in strategy and useful strategy is trust, context, and rich subject matter expertise.

I am asked all the time: “So who is the best leader? What makes the most effective leader (note: not the perfect leader)?” My response is usually the same—“It is the right leader who fits the organization for a particular season.” The best answer is always filtered through context.

That being said, there are some timeless leadership insights that apply to every leader and every company regardless of the particulars of your situation.

I regularly share three specific leadership principles with CEOs. I’ll sit with them as they consider scaling their business or growing their team and shifting their role, and I keep coming back to these three leadership principles. They can seem simple, which is why we often forget them. If you move past these too quickly, though, then you are at risk.

  • Facilitating is not leading.

Don’t misunderstand me—facilitating is usually an important trait for any leader in any enterprise. Juggling differing opinions and bringing people along in a process is crucial. After all, people best implement what they understand and buy into. But do not mistake equating facilitating with leading. They are not the same capability. Both have a place and both are needed. But at every rung of the leadership ladder, a leader must make a few leadership decisions and calls. Not all issues self-resolve or automatically go away. Not all issues will have harmonious energetic alignment with your team. You cannot always take a poll and count the votes and go with the majority.

By all means, be a collaborative leader. Those are usually the most effective leaders in the life and work world we live in today. But don’t think that collaboration is the ultimate currency. Leading is. If you are a leader, be ready for those occasions you have to lead…not just facilitate.

  • No strategic plan will ever self-execute.

Every leader will answer this question correctly when asked in a vacuum. But we often forget the answer in the day-to-day demands of swirling activity, noisy options, and crushing demands. Will any strategic plan, even the really great, clearly aligned ones, self-execute? No, they will not. They never have and they never will.

Often leaders will put an enormous amount of energy and resources into creating a plan or map to guide their organization forward. And then they wilt or go into auto-pilot with implementation. It always takes some kind of mechanism to drive a plan forward. It does not have to be harsh, costly, or completely disruptive, but it does have to exist.

I love good, clear plans and maps. But I love even more a mechanism or process that a leader constructs to implement, measure, and pivot as real time results happen.

  • Inspiration is not a substitute for leadership.

Or as Jim Collins said, “Great vision without great people is irrelevant.” I am a huge believer in inspiration. I love to be inspired and have epiphanies. I love to help others imagine forward. Every year I work with hundreds of organizations, and most of them have a robust vision and are brimming with inspiration.

But even the most compelling vision still needs the human element of a good leader leading. It needs someone carrying the torch of hope and coherence. It needs a leader voicing “This is the way forward!” It needs a leader setting the pace and urgency.

Yes, your particular context sets you apart in many ways. But all leaders practice baseline behaviors. Make sure you have the three items above in your baseline mindset and toolbox.

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