On Leadership

First published 15 March 2005.

Volumes have been written on this subject, and every few years some talented schmoe gets rich writing books about their half-baked management theories: “management by objective”; “management by walking around”; “total quality management”, et cetera.  Collectively these theories are not worth the paper they are printed on.  They are useful for getting ossified organizations to adapt periodically, but they are useless if you need to know the core basics of how to motivate and coordinate your fellow human beings.

Good leadership skills are not hard to develop, but they do require some active thought and energy.  They also have a polaris, a guiding star, and it is this: integrity.  To motivate free people into superior performance you must have their respect; and their respect will not be forthcoming until they know they can trust you.  Companies and leaders today have forgotten this to a large extent.  They focus on compensation and perks to lure people into demanding roles, but they have forgotten that people want compensation beyond the material, too; they want a mission they believe in, and superior leadership to help get them there.

My idea of good leadership comes straight from the Army Officer’s Guide, by LTC Lawrence P. Crocker.  I picked up the 45th edition when I was seventeen (and looking forward to an Army career); the principles of leadership described in it have been my guide ever since.  I’ll try and distill some of the essentials here.


Integrity is a simple concept but very few people practice it well.  It is essentially a code of personal honour; living in harmony with the best traditions of truth, justice and mercy.  If you are a man of integrity, your word is your bond.  You will keep your word and act in the best interests of your employer and your employees even when doing so harms your career.  If you can do this consistently, you will enjoy the trust and confidence of your superiors and those you lead.  Your statements of fact will be accepted, and your statements of opinion will be respected as sincere.  If you cannot act with integrity, then you have no business being a leader.


Service. Many captains of industry and politicians forget that they got where they are by serving a public need.  You were hired to serve the company, in noble or ordinary tasks.  Do not turn up your nose at unpleasant tasks but embrace them.  Those who can be trusted to execute small tasks can also be trusted with the great.  No one will hand additional responsibility to someone who can’t manage the simple things.

Accomplish the mission. You have been hired by the business to contribute to its goals and profitability.  If you cannot accomplish the tasks you are given, within resource and policy limts, then the company has no reason to employ you.  You have to strive to be good at what you do.  There is no substitute for victory.

Most managers are not trained to lead, and this problem is compounded by the anti-authority attitudes most employees bring to the table.  Good leaders plan work, delegate it, and see that it is done skillfully and in cooperation with others.  Plan your work and communicate clearly.  The very first day I was at IBM, my boss took me into his office and said “we expect you to transition to a senior role within six months.”  It was a bit of a shock at first, but I appreciated the candour.  It said to me “we work fast here, and you need to step up to the plate right away”.  You must also be willing to be led by your superiors, recognizing that no position is so great that it is not accountable to another.  If you are responsible for a project or action that fails, accept responsibility for it no matter what the cost.

You all remember Major Harry Schmidt and Major William Umbach.  They were the F-16 flight that mistakenly fired upon and killed Canadian soldiers training at Tarnak Farms outside Kandahar, Afghanistan.  Major Schmidt went the way of the careerist, fighting court battles and desperately trying to save his own skin.  He was found guilty on four counts of dereliction of duty, and subsequently grounded, reprimanded and docked one month’s salary.  Major Umbach chose the better way, to act with integrity.  He did not fight a PR battle to save his own hide, but accepted his reprimand with quiet grace.  All charges against Major Umbach were dismissed, and his request for early retirement was granted.  Major Umbach knew that he screwed up, knew that his screw up came with a heavy personal price, and he was prepared to pay it.

I am a human like everyone else, and while I like to think that my career has done a lot of good, I have also screwed up royally sometimes.  I have offered my resignation when I felt that a screw-up was so gigantic that it affected the company as a whole and my department’s standing within it.  I have never been called upon to give my resignation, but I have had colleagues and superiors alike commend me for offering it, and being willing to take responsibility for not just the good, but also the bad. Good leaders do not shift the blame, they take responsibility — even at considerable personal cost.

Loyalty. Your loyalty must be beyond reproach.  It should extend upward to your superiors whom you may dislike, outward to your peers with whom you may be in competition, and downward to each of your subordinates.  If you should do something unwise and forfeit the loyalty of any of these groups, it may never be regained.

One day at IBM I had a pile of twelve top-priority clients to support, all with Severity 1 server crashes and all in various stages of panic.  Severity 1 at IBM means you are in contact with the client at a bare minimum of once every hour until the problem is resolved.  One of the IBM Canada vice-presidents contacted my boss with another incident, and asked for me to handle it right away.  Well, my boss knew that twelve Sev 1s was a lot to handle in one day, and he wasn’t about to load on one more. He ran the VP through the list of twelve, and said “which one of these clients do you want us to drop so that we can tackle yours?”  The VP didn’t hassle us again, and that boss’ stock went up a few thousand bucks in my estimation.  I would work for him again at any company, in any role.  That is the sort of loyalty that commands respect and admiration from your subordinates, and that’s what you should be aiming for.

Discipline. You as a leader set the example for your subordinates.  Demonstrate the attitudes and actions you want your staff to emulate.  Don’t just spit out a memo and expect them to live up to it.  It is in our nature to detest hypocrisy, even as we are all subject to it on occasion.  If you want to earn the respect of your peers and your subordinates, you have to live by the rules you set.  If you expect them to work late, then you have to work late too.  If you expect them to go the extra mile for you, then you need to go the extra mile for them.  Your conduct sets the tone for your department, and an undisciplined department is of no earthly good to any company.  When it comes to discipline, lead by example or not at all.

When I worked for a Crown corporation, the CIO stayed in her office all night while my team resolved a major hardware and software problem.  She wasn’t directly involved in the effort, but she didn’t think it was right to go home when all of us were slaving away half the night.  She stayed in the office until the last one of us had left.  I don’t necessarily hold fond memories of my time in public service, but I do respect that CIO for her symbolic gesture.  Be willing to make the same sacrifices that you’d ask of your staff.

Readiness. “Be prepared” is not just the Boy Scout motto, it’s also essential to good leadership.  In each and every job you will be called upon to step outside your job requirements, to go above and beyond the call of duty.  Do not shrink from these opportunities.  Be flexible and adaptable, ready to change your way of thinking or your business processes.  Be ready to tackle whatever challenges arise.  Do not fall into the careerist “it’s not my job” mentality or the scelrotic “it’s not the way we’ve always done things” attitude.  That way lies the highway to mediocrity.

Many companies do not bother to think about the future and what sorts of jolts and surprises may be heading down the road.  During the “Northeast Blackout” of August 2003, the Crimson Permanent Assurance’s supreme level of preparedness was a great comfort to me.  The building designer had thought to install a large diesel generator that provided several days of power to not only emergency lighting, but the elevators as well.  Corporate Facilities regularly tested the diesel generator and checked its tank reserves.  The data centre architect had installed an extremely large UPS that could not only power the mainframe and all of our client-server systems, but replenish its reserves from the diesel generator.  Our disaster recovery team had located several backup systems at a remote location that could be fired up at a moment’s notice, and those systems were tested every few months.  This kind of preparedness cannot be improvised once a crisis is underway.  It has to be bred into the thinking of an organization, and it has to be maintained, not unlike nuclear missiles, in a constant state of alertness and readiness — even if these systems and processes are never used.  Someone in management thought these things were important and as a result, when the crisis came — we were sitting pretty.

But readiness is not just about hardware, it’s also software — a mindset.  The day of the blackout, my entire department went above and beyond the call of duty.  We all stayed late to shut down the servers, and myself and three others remained at the office until about 2300 to assess UPS and diesel power reserves, and assist the business with recovery plans.  At about 0400 the following morning, power was restored to the building and we four were paged to come back in to begin network and server infrastructure start-up.  The rest of the group was just as important, standing watch in 12-hour shifts to ensure that, in the event of a brown-out or other hiccup, senior technical staff were in the building 24×7 for the next 3-4 days.  My boss, incidentally, was in the very next group to stand watch, after the initial four.  Readiness and adaptability are essential.

Take care of your people. The company has given you responsibility for governing a group of individuals.  These employees look to you for direction and also for provenance.  Give them the tools they need and the rewards they deserve.  Make sure they understand your expectations,  and find out theirs.  Live up to them.  If they perform exceptionally, reward them exceptionally.  Protect them, insofar as you can, from undue pressure or unjust criticism.  Show them that loyalty flows down the chain of command, as well as up.   Sometimes, the company won’t ante up and you will have to pay for this stuff out of your own pocket.  Do it — it’s worth the investment.  It demonstrates that you care enough and want the best for them, even if it costs you personally.

A lot of companies are cheap in rewarding people for exceptional deeds.  Some do silly things like treat employees to catered (or worse, pizza) lunches if they do a good job.  In I.T., pizza is what you eat when it’s 0100, tomorrow morning is the project deadline, and you have no other choice because all the restaurant kitchens are closed.  I always avoid reward lunches unless they are at four- or five-star joints; I can eat at a three-star (or heavens, order pizza) any time, and it’s not a reward to me.  Here’s how to do it right.  A few years ago, I had a project team of eleven people that had to perform a complicated web deployment for me that ended up being scheduled the same night as the staff Christmas party.  The deployment took up most of the evening and we missed the party as a result.  I took them all to the Rosewater Supper Club for dinner a few weeks later, and we had a ball.  People need exceptional rewards for exceptional service, otherwise they will think you are taking them for granted.

If you are not in management, or do not manage the people you wish to recognise, you can still reward them.  Take colleagues to lunch, give them a gift certificate or some token of your appreciation for a job well done.  Don’t forget them during the holidays, either.  At Christmas I send flowers to my headhunter and her accounting department (their office seems to be almost entirely staffed by women).  Their work allows me to find jobs and get paid, and it’s only right that I remember them and reward them for it.  Everybody that contributes to your success should get recognition of some kind, even if it’s just a simple thank-you e-mail cc:ed to their boss.  There is not one person on the planet who doesn’t like to be appreciated for the work they do.

Cooperate. Try and get along with your superiors, equals and subordinates as best you can.  Avoid useless personality conflicts; these will occur in any company, any role, at any level of the chain of command.  If you find yourself in a personality conflict, then do not let it escalate.  Get your emotions under control and deal with the other party fairly, even generously.  Don’t get into one-upmanship by carbon copying snarky e-mail to their boss.  Keep it all private and under the radar, to let them save face too.  Take the enemy out for coffee or drop by their office when they have a free moment, and make whatever peace you can.  Your job is to complete whatever mission the company assigns you, not to carve out and defend your own personal fiefdom.  You can’t do your job effectively if the people on your team want to see you fail.  Don’t perpetuate a divisive morale problem — be part of the solution.

Respect the chain of command. Don’t undermine your superiors; if you disagree with anything they say, corner them privately and discuss it.  Respect their dignity and honour and they’ll respect yours.  If you take cheap shots in a meeting and try to score political points, expect them to do it to you.  If you need command guidance, don’t go over your boss’ head to his boss; let him have first crack at the situation.  Treat your boss with respect whether he/she deserves it or not; they’ve earned it by virtue of their rank.  Respect the office, not the individual.  You’d want them to treat you nicely if the positions were reversed.

So what is the objective of all this advice? In crass marketing terms it’s establishing your brand.  In real-life terms it’s building sterling character, which will see you through all times, all situations, all companies, good or bad.  A brand with integrity and a good name is highly sought after.  If you can do these things, you’ll be on the road to being a better leader; someone whose advice and counsel people will seek.  You may not make millions, but you’ll be happier, you’ll have happier employees, and you’ll have succeeded in life by any reasonable definition.

“A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.”

Proverbs XXII 1, NIV

Category: Industria  Tags: , ,
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