The 5 Principles of Leadership, Part I


by futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

Systematic study of the future consists of many things, and one of those is leadership. The practice of leadership is enables us to organize people and help them act and accomplish meaningful things for their future. Because it’s a pivotal issue that relates to how my clients succeed in preparing for tomorrow, I’ve studied, practiced, and spoken about leadership for many years, but only rarely have I written about it. Accordingly, I thought it was about time I set down what I perceive as the five key principles essential to good leadership. These principles are designed to help someone who is not already a leader become one, or someone who isn’t quite sure how to practice leadership do so. They can also help existing leaders become better. Yet, these five principles are so fundamental that they sound simplistic, in much that same way that great ideas evoke an “of course!” reaction.

One of the things I’ve noticed about most of the literature on leadership is that it makes no overall sense, it doesn’t hang together, because it doesn’t have a central organizing structure. As a result, most leadership literature, and indeed, most of the people who talk about leadership, sound either like fortune cookies, with grab bags of short, one-line slogans, or come across as offering tricks and gimmicks, without any real explanation as to why they work. Hence, you get simplistic statements like “It’s important to lead by example, to walk the walk, or else you lose credibility.” That’s certainly true, but that’s a technique of leadership; it doesn’t explain what you’re trying to do as a leader, or how to become a leader. The implication is that if you use enough of these tricks, you’ll be a leader, which isn’t the case. Instead, I want to approach the structure of the subject of leadership. Which brings me to my first principle.

First Principle: A leader has followers

Put simply, leadership is magic. It involves convincing other people who may have different ideas to follow you and your ideas. Gandhi once said that the only true miracle is changing someone’s mind, and in leadership, you are often called on to do just that, as well as help people make up their minds, which can be equally difficult. So let me start by asking you: If you’re a leader, and you have followers, WHY do they follow you?

Sometimes the answer is obvious: they may follow you because they get a paycheck from you or through you. They may follow you because you’re their parent. They may follow you, as in the military, because you have a higher rank and they are legally bound to follow you, and will get into serious trouble if they don’t. Yet, even in those circumstances, it can be open to question as to whether they follow you willingly, or whether they just pretend to, and go through the motions. Think, for instance, of a teenage boy who follows(?) his father’s instructions – until his father’s not around. Or the worker who uses the company’s computers to play games and chat on facebook on company time when he’s not supposed to, but quickly covers it up when his boss appears.

There is a portion of leadership literature that deals with the difference between a leader and a boss. Not everyone gets that distinction, but it’s an important one: people follow a boss because they are, in some way, compelled to; people follow a leader because they choose to.

Which brings me to the second kind of leader: those who can work that special kind of magic that inspires people to follow them by choice.

In the classic movie, A Man for All Seasons, starring Paul Scofield (for which he won an Oscar), King Henry VIII, played by Robert Shaw, once explains why it’s important to him that Sir Thomas More support him on the critical issue of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Their dialog goes to the heart of leadership:

More: Then why does your Grace need my poor support?

King: Because you’re honest…and what is more to the purpose, you’re known to be honest. There are those like [the Duke of] Norfolk who follow me because I wear the crown, those like Master Cromwell who follow me because they are jackals with sharp teeth and I’m their tiger, there’s a mass that follows me because it follows anything that moves. And then there’s you.

More: I am sick to think how much I must displease your Grace.

King: No, Thomas, I respect your sincerity. But respect—man, that’s water in the desert.

So, some follow because it is expected of them, and they are required to do so (like the Duke of Norfolk in this example). Some follow because they believe it will benefit them (Master Cromwell). Some follow because they want to be led, and will follow anyone with a loud, confident voice (the mass). But some will follow only when they, in good conscience and after careful thought, choose to do so.

As a result, a critical part of understanding what leadership is, and how to do it, is to understand each of your followers (or groups of followers), to know what they want, and why they follow you. It’s important, if you want to learn how to be a leader, to know who is following you, and why. Is this easy? Absolutely not, but it is vital to the role.

And note that each of these categories of followers will follow in a different manner. Those who follow because they must or are expected to, will do so by rote, and do what is expected, but may not show initiative, take risks, or do what they think will serve in the long-term best interests of the group that is being led. They are “just following orders.” This group can become difficult if they disagree with your direction, or with what you’re doing, or how you’re doing it. If they are compelled to follow you, they may well either go through the motions of obeying, or even privately subvert your directives.

Those who follow like jackals following a tiger will do so only as long as they think it’s in their best interests to do so, and may even turn on the leader when following no longer suits them. To keep this group in line requires a continuous stream of red meat; you’d better deliver or else!

Those who follow because they are too timorous to make their own way, and want to be led, will follow blindly, and, again, likely won’t show any initiative, and may not even follow at all in difficult or dangerous times.

But the critical followers are the honest ones, who have thought through where you are leading, and why they are following. These are the ones that will take the initiative, take risks to achieve the group’s goals, and will ultimately be the most valuable followers. Like Sir Thomas More, they are leaders in their own right, and the fact that they follow you underlines your own authority. They are valuable not only for what they do themselves, but because their followership validates your leadership.

The magic and inspiration of leadership comes in understanding who your followers are, what motivates them, and how you can change, manage, or harmonize that motivation with your own. What you want is to have as many of the Thomas More-type of followers as possible, and in converting as many of the other types to that type. This isn’t always possible, and when it’s not, you will also have to manage the other kinds of followers as well.

So how do you learn this magic, and what do you need to do to work it? The ability to see into the human heart and mind is both a talent, and a skill. Some are born with it, like being born with the talent to sing or paint, and never try to develop it further. These are the people with charisma, and natural leadership ability who lead by gut instinct.

Some are born with little of this natural talent, yet work to develop their leadership skills. They can become competent, capable leaders, but have to do by hard work and study what talented individuals do by charisma.

The people who don’t possess talent, and don’t work to learn the skills, yet wind up in positions of power end up being bosses, not leaders. They think a loud voice and a harsh manner are what makes a leader. Or the end up at the other end, trying to please everyone, and never correcting mistakes for fear of being disliked. Neither kind of boss produces much success, yet this is probably the most common kind.

The best leaders are those who have some natural ability, and then work hard to develop it further through practicing the skills associated with leadership. And it is here that the leadership texts come into their own: they offer tools and techniques to help you learn and improve your leadership skills. Yet it helps immeasurably to know what you’re trying to accomplish, which is to learn how to look inside people, and to bring them to decide that they believe in you and what you’re trying to accomplish. And it is with this understanding that some of the disjointed techniques can be valuable.

For example, leading by example or “walking the walk”, helps you do these things. You will learn what’s important to people by seeing who responds to your example; it opens a window into what motivates them. Those who do not respond to your example may not be sincere in seeking the group’s goals; they may be jackals, or just following orders.

You also show yourself to be sincere in your commitment to the group’s goals by walking the walk, plus you are demonstrating empathy with them, their needs, and their situation by doing the work that you’re asking them to do, thus showing that you are willing to earn their respect because you respect them. So suddenly the technique of “walking the walk” fits into the overall picture of how you can learn to be a leader, or become a better leader. It’s not just a trick that’s hanging unsupported in the middle of nothing, but is, instead, a valuable way of achieving what you need to achieve: understanding what people are seeking when they follow, and convincing them that you can offer it.

Second Principle: A leader has direction

A leader has to be leading towards something. The group’s goal is that something, and everything the group and the leader does should be moving towards that goal. This sounds obvious, and is, but how many leadership books or speakers even mention this?

Why does a leader need to lead towards something? Well, the whole purpose of leadership is to organize the efforts and energies of a group of people to achieve something. But if there’s no focus to that energy, those being led will eventually realize they are wasting their time and effort and give up. In short, they stop being led.

Again, this is obvious, but with organizations or groups that have been around for a long time, that direction often gets lost in the mists of history. Do you work for an organization that’s several decades old? If so, do you know what it’s purpose is, what it’s trying to accomplish? Or are you just there to collect a paycheck? If you’re a member of a social group, such as Scouting or Rotary, do you have a purpose, or do you just show up because you’ve always shown up?

Moreover, it’s not just having a direction, but having a primary purpose. A primary purpose is the reason why your organization exists, and the purpose without which there would be no reason for the organization to exist, even if there are other, lesser purposes. Yet, too many groups are confused about what they’re trying to accomplish, and this is often reflected in the much dreaded, and usually mushy “mission statement”.

Let me give you an example from my local school board from 20 years go. (They have since been reorganized, and now have a different management structure.) Their mission statement was: “The Toronto Board is committed to excellence and equity in opportunities and outcomes for our students and our employees, regard­less of race, ethnicity, culture, class, gender, or disability.”

If I were to ask you why you wanted a school in your community, you’d probably say something like “to educate our children.” That’s a school board’s primary purpose: to educate children. You probably would not say, “to commit to excellence and equity in opportunities and outcomes for our students and our employees”. This is fuzzy thinking, and the old Toronto School Board was famous for it.

In contrast, Disney is a company with a clear primary purpose: “To make people happy.” Clearly, there are other things they want to do as well, like make a profit, have their stock price rise, and all the usual corporate stuff, but for them everything arises out of making people happy. That’s their primary purpose. Could you imagine the Disney Corporation existing and being as successful as it has been without making people happy? That would make no sense. Their primary purpose gives everything they do direction, and makes leadership clear. Not easy, but clear.

Another mistake is to confuse activity for direction. I’ve seen lots of organizations where people seem frantically busy, yet after a while I find myself wondering what the heck they’re trying to do. And in some cases, this becomes degenerate activity. An IT group I worked with at a major bank was so busy that they couldn’t find the time to do anything for anyone else in the bank, not the operating divisions, nor the executives, nor the customers. They spent all their time managing their computers and their own operations, even though those computers were supposed to serve and support the bank’s operations. They repeatedly turned away requests for help or service from anyone else in the bank, until their senior executives finally got sick of it and replaced the head of the IT group.

So the second principle you need to know and follow if you want to learn to be a leader, or become a better one, is to make sure you have a clear direction, an unquestioned primary purpose.

In the next installment, I’ll talk about leadership and its relationship to success. This will related to principles 3 and 4.

© Copyright, IF Research, March 2013.