Rules for Leading: Break Them At Your Own Risk

By David Garic

In a desperate championship game, a football coach calls a play--a special play, that he knows will work. The ball is snapped; the quarterback drops back to pass and throws to a running back who catches the ball while he is behind the line of scrimmage. The running back stops, sets, and throws a completed pass thirty yards downfield to a wide receiver, putting the team in scoring position. Wait! The officials are huddled in the middle of the field and then a yellow penalty flag ascends into the air, Illegal forward pass. The previous play is voided and the team is penalized. Surely the coach must have known that this type of play was against the rules. Or did he?

If this very same play had been run the previous season it would have been perfectly legal and within the rules, but an off-season rule change made this play illegal. Yet, the coach was unaware of it. He didn’t know the rules. It proved to be a costly mistake since his team lost when the opposing team scored a last second field goal.

When it comes to leading people, teams, and organizations there aren’t any referees present to make sure we follow the rules. Over and over again, leaders call the wrong plays without even knowing they’re breaking the rules. All leaders are different and all leaders lead differently. Fortunately for us there aren’t very many rules for leading. Most attempts by companies and organizations to communicate their expectations to the leaders are attempts to amplify the rules. Every so often these attempts go awry, resulting in leadership failure and frustration. What has happened is that the rules (unknowingly) have been broken.

So, just what are these rules and why are they so important?

Rule #1:  Leaders Cannot Motivate People: Leaders repeatedly fool themselves into thinking they can motivate people by offering them some form of tangible reward or by instilling fear in them. In both cases they are wrong.

Leaders Cannot Motivate People. What leaders can do, however, is be motivational. Consider this: All of us are self-motivated. We all do what we do because we, for a multitude of reasons, are motivated to do it. You see, the key for leaders when it comes to motivation is not believing that they can motivate people, it’s that they understand what motivates people, what drives them, and create the opportunities for them to satisfy those motivations.  

Rule #2: Check Your Ego at the Door: Leaders whose focus is egocentric take significant risk. Over and over again, leaders who behave as though their followers exist solely to serve them inevitably tumble from their exalted status. They fail to realize that in every circumstance, any influence that leaders enjoy is a direct result of the willingness of their followers to allow themselves to be influenced by leaders. If followers aren’t willing to be led, the leaders are powerless. Followers can easily and readily detect when a leader’s focus is on himself and not them. Effective leaders focus on the needs, wants, desires, and expectations of their followers and every action they take is intended to help followers satisfy those needs, wants and expectations.

Rule #3: Do it right: Leaders have a moral responsibility to their followers to ensure that what they require of their followers is within ethical boundaries. Succinctly, they must create and maintain the ethical climate within which they operate. Simply by virtue of their authority and position in an organization, leaders can wield significant amounts of power. Misusing this power can produce horrendous and often deadly results. They are expected to define what is right and what is wrong, and when they choose to ignore what is right and expect what is wrong they place their followers in harm’s way.

To do it right, leaders must:

1.   Define a clear, understandable set of guidelines for their followers. Give examples of what is right and what is wrong.

2.   Define and determine ahead of time what the rewards are for ethical behavior. Conversely, determine ahead of time the consequences for unethical behavior.

3.   Monitor the level of stress and pressure followers are performing under. Determine what the optimal level of stress is and seek to prevent it from increasing.

You can choose to follow them, bend or break them, or ignore them. Whatever choice you make, the rules are the rules, and they are as real as Newton’s law of gravity. Like Newton’s law, the rules have a predictable effect on how successful or unsuccessful any leader will be. As long as people are in positions of responsibility, attempting to influence other people to achieve a goal, or to get the job done, the rules will be there.

Read other articles and learn more about David Garic.

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