The ABCs of Leadership

All you have to remember is three things. Really, just three.
by | March 18, 2009

I once wrote a chapter called "The Ten Lessons in Leadership." I was pretty happy with it until somebody asked me what the ten lessons were. Oops. I had forgotten my own rule: no more than three.

So here, newly reorganized and rethought, are the ABCs of leadership.

A is for authenticity.

You could pretend you're something you're not, but it's a bad idea. First, it's hard work; second, it's likely to give you a stomachache; and third, you'll be found out. As a leader, you need followers, and people won't follow you if they don't believe in you.

There's another benefit to being authentic: it trains new leaders. If people see you don't have all the answers, they'll know it's OK to not have all the answers. If they see you're uncertain, they'll know it's OK to be uncertain sometimes. Or even to be irritable -- I was once complimented by a staff member about displaying some irritability during a staff meeting: "We loved the way you threw a childish tantrum -- you showed us it was OK to have a childish side."

B is for buoyancy.

This means resilience, bounce, lightheartedness, encouragement, unsinkable-ness, and uplift. People want purpose in their work, and that demands that a leader be buoyant. When Greg Woods headed Federal Student Aid, he buoyed up the spirits of 6,000 workers when he inspired them with his vision, "We help put America through school." People will toil grudgingly to cut stone, but they'll throw their hearts and bodies into building castles.

Buoyancy was the value I contributed to Pete Daley, an Air Force officer who kept coming up with big ideas that made me nervous, until my sidekick, Doug Farbrother, took me aside.

"Whenever Pete gets an idea, the way to manage him is to slap him on the back and say, 'Way to go, Pete. Go with it.' Pete's enthusiasm will make his good ideas succeed, and his intelligence will let him find out faster than you can which are the bad ideas."

From then on, that's how I "managed" Pete and all the other talented people I was supposed to manage. People want to be in charge of their part of the world. When you're buoyant -- encouraging, empowering -- and give them the authority to do their work the way they want to do it, they respond with enthusiasm and creativity, and they produce things you would never dream of.

Buoyancy means to be positive, positive, always positive. Don't spend your time looking for things that went wrong; spend it looking for things that went right, and then build on them.

C is for control.

Putting people in charge of their part of the world doesn't mean letting them do whatever they want. The leader must guard the core principles and goals of the enterprise. So if you're committed to trusting and empowering workers, you can't tolerate a subordinate who mistrusts and shackles people. If you're committed to excellence, you can't tolerate a comptroller who cuts funding somewhere because it only makes things a little worse or brings an organization back to an average level.

Control demands clarity of message. People won't be true to your principles and achieve your goals if they don't understand them and remember them. Most people have a hard time remembering more than three things. I certainly can't.

The Bible says that the Lord requires of man only three things: "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." West Point has three values: Duty, Honor, Country. Real estate has three rules of value: location, location, location. When I first met with Vice President Al Gore, I told him I had three rules for changing huge organizations, and he embraced them.

1. Have a simple uplifting message that you repeat over and over.

2. Use colorful stories in plain English, with props, to make your goals clear.

3. Praise and reward people who are doing what you want, and don't waste one minute looking for fraud, waste, or abuse.

It's easy to remember three. Four, not so easy. A dean was describing the new curriculum at a reception celebrating the opening of a major American college of public administration. "There are four tracks," he started. I smelled trouble. "The policy track, the management track, the finance track, and, uh, uh, uh, the fourth track."

Stick to three things. Authenticity. Buoyancy. Control.

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