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Eight Leadership Maxims

“Why would I want to work for you?”

The question seems almost blasphemous in this economy. Today, employees are lugging more hours and responsibilities than ever. Each day has become an audition, where employees relentlessly showcase their value and loyalty, all to hold onto what they have. Surrounded by uncertainly, they smile wide, measure their words, and keep their heads low. Behind it all, a frustration slowly simmers, as many resent their limited options.

Some employers will be tempted to milk their growing leverage but that’s short-sighted. When business picks up, they’ll want their employees ready and raring, not questioning their priorities or plotting their escape. That’s why unstable times require that tried-and-true tonic: leadership, but what constitutes leadership these days? Here are eight timeless tenets for building relationships and staying focused on the big picture:

1. Respect Your People: George Orwell wrote, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” In companies, many employees perform those dirty jobs: serving customers, handling details, and mopping floors. They free up the chosen few to dream big and act swiftly. Despite this, they’re often the ones taken for granted, rarely receiving that acknowledgment that their work is noticed—and their sacrifice matters.

Fact is, employees pop off or rebel for a reason. Often, it’s a culmination of small disappointments, along with the perception of being ignored, used, and disrespected. Moreover, leaders usually come to symbolize these frustrations. Real or imagined, employees’ impressions matter—and they come from inertia as much as words and actions. Leaders must ask themselves: “What do the rank-and-file really think of me—and why?” “How much time do I spend out there with them?” “And do I have real relationships with them or are they just whistle stops, props, and photo ops?”

2. Set Expectations: Leaders are expected to be the proverbial adults in the room. Of course, they can’t watch their people 24/7. As a result, they must select team members who accept their roles and can work cohesively with their comrades. Similarly, leaders need to set ground grounds so their teams don’t split into rival camps, engaging in jockeying, freelancing, leaking, and backstabbing. Most important, leaders should keep their eyes and ears open, always knowing what’s happening so they can step in and arbitrate before frustrations boil over.

3. Maintain Self-Control: Leaders live in the spotlight and set the example. What they say and do ripple across an organization. Because of this weight, leaders must remain guarded, even among their closest staffers. For example, they understand that ridiculing a peer—either in private—shows a certain disrespect, even disloyalty, to the larger objective. It inevitably seeds similar attitudes from their reports—toward them. In any endeavor, the greatest threat to failure is questioning, doubt, and second-guessing. By failing to exemplify the highest standards, leaders eventually lose institutional control. They must carry the burden of being at their best at all times, of walking the walk and living and breathing those same bedrock principles they preach.

4. Don’t Overreact: The news always seems worst when it is first heard, but wise leaders step back, find the source, and hear all sides. They understand that conjecture is unreliable and statements can be taken out of context. Most important, they know everyone has an agenda, whether it is to hype their viewpoint or get personal attention. So they stay cool, neutral, and focused on addressing the issue at hand.

5. Listen to Your People: Leaders commonly view the world from 30,000 feet, seeing a reality far removed from the day-to-day experienced by the boots on the ground.
Sure, they take cursory tours through the trenches. Too often, they remain locked in their orthodoxy, insulating themselves from conditions that might compel reassessment.

Real leaders, however, don’t shrug off skepticism, and they don’t sic the corporate goon squad on those who dare challenge the conventional thinking. Instead, they take the time to ask questions; examine their presumptions (and those around them); and compile advice and alternatives from all corners and ranks. They get everything on the table and select what’s popular, effective, and achievable. Leaders recognize when realities change—and they’re willing to change direction or clarify the mission to adapt.

6. Good Things Take Time: Pressure often brings out the worst in people. What’s politically palatable often isn’t feasible. Leaders know they will never make everyone happy, regardless of their intent or the data driving decisions. Whether they are charting a new course or cleaning up a mess, they must forcefully declare their resolve to see it through, despite the time or treasure involved. In doing so, they send a message for their team to fall in line behind them and focus on what’s best, not most expedient.

7. Anticipate Adversity: It’ll never stop rising. Everyone is doing it. When money flows, it’s hard to question if you’re moving too fast or acting in everyone’s best interests. Eventually, the gravy train will run off its tracks; however, real leaders see the writing on the wall and avoid those traps in the first place. They don’t skirt the edges, looking to turn the quick buck, living for the moment, and believing they’re insulated from the consequences. Instead, they remain fixed on the big picture. They understand that leadership is ultimately about being in it for the long haul, for the right reasons, and bringing together a team that shares these values, and that—more than anything else—separates them over time.

8. No One Is Irreplaceable: Charles de Gaulle once noted, “The cemeteries of the world are full of indispensable men.” By that, he meant that no one is bigger than the larger team, regardless of talent, reputation, or past service. Too often, leaders grow self-important, detached, and dismissive as the pace, scope, and weight of their responsibilities coarsen them. They fail to realize that leadership, and the power and prestige that come with it, is all too temporary. As a result, they overstay their welcome, becoming increasingly irrelevant as they fail to adapt and grow. In reality, there is always another crop of budding leaders—passionate and hungry to prove themselves—preparing for that next step. Good leaders devote time to identifying and grooming these people, knowing their ultimate legacy lies in the people who come after them.

About the Author(s)

Jeff Schmitt is a regular contributor to BusinessWeek (www.businessweek.com). He has spent 17 years in sales, marketing, project management, training, legal compliance, and recruiting. You can reach him via e-mail at jschmittdbq@mchsi.com or follow him on Twitter at jefflschmitt.