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Leadership Principles: The Basis of Successful Leadership

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There are basic principles of leadership that you must master in order to be effective in your own organization, and you will succeed in the larger task of leadership only if you adapt the basic principles of leadership to the varied contexts in which you will find yourself. Russell E. Palmer explains in this introduction to his book how to achieve winning execution strategies for your situation.
This chapter is from the book

There is no single style of leadership that works. But there are basic principles of leadership that all effective leaders apply regardless of their personal style of leadership. This book is about those principles.

But the book is also about the greatest mistake that a leader can make. That is to fail to understand how important it is to adapt these principles to the particular context in which the leader is operating. What works in the corner office of the leader’s own organization can be a disaster when applied mindlessly in other contexts. What do I mean by context?

I mean not only the context of the organizations that leaders lead but also the other environments in which they often operate. Here is an example. Larry Bossidy, former CEO of Honeywell International, was asked how he would react if he were chairing a business round-table of other CEOs charged with advising the government on business policy. He replied:

  • What is good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander. In other words, if you have CEOs around the table, depending on the business they operate, they might take relatively pedestrian positions that benefit their own companies. You can’t blame them for that. I’ve done this, as a matter of fact. However, you might say something like, “This business round-table has as one of its goals to influence legislation. And if the legislation we are considering goes the way it’s being proposed, it will certainly have an effect on business. It may not have an effect on your business, or it may have a slightly positive effect on your business. But in the general interest of the round-table, it will have an overall detrimental effect.” So you appeal to their sense of logic and decency. At the end of the day, you don’t automatically command all those votes unanimously, but you still make a recommendation for what should be done for the majority of those on the round-table.

Bossidy knew that he could not simply issue an order as he might at his own company—and in fact, he probably did not order people even at Honeywell unless he absolutely had to do so. He needed to be sensitive to the egos of other CEOs and to find a common chord of understanding around which they could come together.

So the underlying theme of this book is that to be successful, leaders must understand and apply the principles of leadership and at the same time shape the application of the principles to the differing contexts in which they find themselves. Put more simply, if a leader combines leadership principles with an understanding of context, there will be effective execution. Though the idea seems obvious, I have seen able leaders fail to grasp this reality and find themselves unable to lead organizations that are in desperate need of effective leadership.

Here’s an example from my own experience. Soon after I became Dean of the Wharton School, we developed a program called the Plan for Pre-eminence (about which I will say more in another chapter). Its goal was to make Wharton the top business school in the U.S., and it had many various elements, including, for instance, recruiting top faculty members from leading institutions around the country (eventually we recruited more than 100 faculty members in seven years). The plan had many other facets, including revamping the MBA curriculum, pushing forward aggressively on fundraising, transforming our Executive Education programs, and building new facilities, along with other initiatives. For the plan to succeed, we needed every constituency at the school—faculty, staff, students, alumni, and so on—to pull together to achieve it.

Getting students to support the plan was not as easy as it might sound. Reflect for a moment, if you will, upon the circumstances of someone who decides to interrupt a career to get an MBA degree. Most of the students had taken two years off from their careers and had deferred earning a salary to get the degree, and they were paying a high tuition rate to boot. The last thing on their minds was a new plan that some new dean had introduced—and they were not exactly pleased at the prospect of interrupting their busy study and job-interview schedule to support it. They had their own goals—getting a good degree, and a good job making money—and they were at Wharton to attain those objectives. Why should the Plan for Pre-eminence matter to them?

We had to convince the students as to why the plan mattered, and how it served their present and future interests. I met regularly with students to discuss the plan, and in our conversations I would say something along these lines: “How important is the reputation of the school you attend to your career? If you go to Harvard, or Stanford, or Wharton, is that better for you than going to a school whose reputation is not quite as strong? For the rest of your life, people are going to ask you where you went to school. They will make initial judgments about you based on whether you went to a top school or a mediocre one. If we can make Wharton the top business school, it will be an advantage for a lifetime for every one of you and everyone who has graduated from here.”

Gradually, after countless conversations, the message sank in that Wharton’s reputation was as crucial to the students’ future as many of the concepts they were learning in class. They understood how important it was to support the Plan for Pre-eminence, and how they would benefit from its success. Their goals and the goals of the institution were joined. We aligned our objectives. The students’ attitude changed, they threw their weight behind the plan, and it became easier to accomplish the school’s strategic goals.

This is just one example of how change can be brought about. Leadership involves many tasks—but one of the most important ones is to cause change. This is one of the most difficult things to do in any organization—because the beliefs, habits, processes, and environment have been solidified over a long period. In general, people don’t mind change as long as it does not affect them. But if a change is disruptive of their activities or their lives or their normal patterns, people often dislike that—and they resist change vehemently and vocally.

How can leaders bring about change? In part, they do it by gaining the commitment of their constituents. Leaders convince their constituents to support plans for change because it benefits them to do so. In other words, employees must be convinced that when they back an initiative for change, it will benefit them tangibly and concretely—in terms of their promotion, or their bonus, or their salary—even if these things don’t happen right away. They are not going to support a plan for change just because the leader happens to think it is a good idea. Wise leaders also don’t use threats—“Either you do what I say or you’re fired.” The negative, fear-oriented approach never achieves as much over the long term as a consensus-building, enthusiastic approach to transforming an organization. (One CEO often told his subordinates that he wanted all of them to be fired with enthusiasm, or they would be fired with enthusiasm.)

When you, as a leader, are trying to bring about change in an environment that isn’t in a catastrophic situation, the first thing to realize is that trying to change an organization is like trying to tear down a brick wall without tools. If you try to do it all at once, you will end up with aching arms and perhaps bloody knuckles—but the wall will still stand. The right approach is to wait for a brick to loosen, and then push it over to the other side. Then you go for the next brick. You will find that some things can be changed faster at certain times due to existing circumstances than other things can. To succeed as a leader, you need to seize the opportunities you find to change those things—rather than working twice as hard on changing something that isn’t yet ready for change.

If you focus on things that are very difficult to change, you may just end up causing disruption and lose momentum or cause a revolution. You can’t be too far in front of the troops. You may know what is likely to happen and what has to be done, but if you are too far ahead of the ranks, you are in trouble. You have to move the group along so that its members generally agree with what is happening. On the other hand, the leader can use a situation in which real danger is present to accomplish a great deal in a short time. We will discuss these issues with more examples later in this book.

Who Should Read the Book?

I have written this book for anyone who is a leader or an aspiring leader. The principles I describe will work in a wide variety of organizations. These include manufacturing companies, high-tech companies, foundations, arts organizations, government, the military, partnerships, service organizations, financial institutions, and educational organizations, among others.

In the book, I describe various contexts that can be found in today’s organizations, and I explain the kinds of leadership styles that work best in each. But it would be a mistake for readers to assume that because there might be no chapter on an organization that exactly matches the context of their own organization that the book has no relevance to them. Many of the contexts described in the chapters are very close to a wide range of similar organizations, and the leadership styles that work in them are essentially the same. I argue that there are no industries or organizations that are so different from those in this book that they are exempt from the tools I present for leadership in the 21st century.

The key concepts in the book are strengthened by the voices of a remarkable set of leaders that are woven into the text. They were invited to tell us about their ideas and experience of leadership, and they include corporate leaders such as Larry Bossidy, the former CEO of Honeywell, whom we have just heard from, as well as its current CEO and chairman, David M. Cote. You will also hear from Tony Kobayashi, the chairman of Fuji Xerox; Gen. P.X. Kelley, former commandant of the Marine Corps.; Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, who headed the Joint Chiefs of Staff and led the U.S. military effort to bring peace to Bosnia; Jock McKernan, former governor of Maine, who is now Chairman of Education Management Corp. in Pittsburgh; Marty Evans, a former Naval officer who was the highest ranking woman in the Navy at that time and who later headed the Red Cross; John DiIulio, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who once headed President George W. Bush’s Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and is a Jesuit leadership expert; Tom Ehrlich, former provost of the University of Pennsylvania, former president of Indiana University, and also former dean of Stanford Law School; Uriel Reichman, who once fought as an officer in the Israeli army and later was the founder and president of The Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel; Jacob Wallenberg, who belongs to Sweden’s well-known banking family and now is chairman of the board of Investor, SEB Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken and W Capital Management; and Virginia Clark, head of external affairs for the Smithsonian Museum. In addition, you will hear from several leaders with whom I worked—or continue to work—at Touche Ross, the Wharton School, and The Palmer Group. All these individuals present their own perspectives on leadership—but these serve a common purpose: To help you get a richer and deeper appreciation of the principles and context of leadership.

In this chapter, I will briefly describe the principles that I believe are essential to successful leadership. In subsequent chapters, I will describe the many contexts in which leaders are likely to find themselves and explain how to adapt the basic principles to these differing contexts.

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