The Cardinal Rule of Leadership

If you’ve ever been part of an organization, then I’d surmise that you must have at some point thought about leadership.  Every group has at least one.  Given that, my experience has been that more often than not, a huge difference between successful organizations and those that are not so successful is the relative effectiveness of their leadership team.

So what makes leaders effective?  What makes them successful?  If you do even a cursory online search on leadership, you’ll find thousands of articles written about it.  Given that leadership has been questioned, examined, written about, and taught in seminars and colleges for centuries, why are there STILL ineffective leaders?

I’ll start the answer by demonstrating what I’ve seen.  In the Army, I often knew soldiers who at some point in their careers were promoted to Sergeant, which marks the transition from worker bee to leader.  (Unless, of course, one is in the infantry, etc. in which the rank of corporal marks the transition, but I digress).  The people I knew who were ineffective as new Sergeants immediately changed their relationship dynamics with the soldiers they came up with.  They became haughty, and saw their new rank as their most important identifier.  I knew some that even looked down their noses socially and professionally at their old friends.  These new “leaders” could not understand why soldiers wouldn’t ask “how high?” when told to jump, and would bark incessantly and point at the stripes on their uniforms as proof of their authority.  Soldiers, in turn, would either stare at them blankly before ignoring the order, or do the exact minimum required to keep from getting barked at any more.

I’ve seen “leaders” in other organizations that exhibited similar traits.  For many of them, the huge degree displayed on the wall was more an indicator of leadership than anything they said or did.  Or perhaps the title on their business cards were the thing.  And sure enough, when their bosses would question why the organization wasn’t operating proficiently, they would blame any and everyone under their command.

I’ve also seen “leaders” reject any idea that wasn’t their own.  Or, similarly, they would usurp any good idea from their team and portray it as their own when presenting it to the upper echelons of the organization.  If you’ve ever experienced this as a worker, please insert your thoughts/feelings about the individual (here).

Now that I’ve talked to you about what inhibits leaders from being effective, let me throw out a few names of those that most of us, if not all, acknowledge as leaders and admire.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  George Washington.  Abraham Lincoln.  Sitting Bull.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  Mahatma Gandi.  What is it about these leaders that made them so effective?  Was it their oratory skills?  Their charm?  Their intelligence?  Their ability to handle pressure and stress?  Their ability to connect to and empathize with others?

I submit to you that all of the above are essential elements of leadership.  All of the above leaders, and any others one might mention, share most, if not all of those qualities.  So what really makes a leader a leader?  What sets truly effective, life-altering, organization-shifting leaders apart?  They’ve all figured out the cardinal rule of leadership.  And if you’ve ever been a leader, or ever hope to become one, I say to you now that you must not only figure it out as well, but you must absorb it, ponder it and live it as long as you are a leader.

True leaders are servants for the people they lead.  As simple as that sounds, and as often as you may have already heard that, the reason why there are still ineffective leaders out there is because they don’t live it.  To be a servant, you must be humble.  You must put your ego aside, and realize that the success of the organization or of the people is not about you.  It’s about them.  Your leadership ability is in no way tied to your title.  In fact, nine out of ten people you work with couldn’t care less about your title.

They want to know that you care about them.  They want to know that if they need anything from you,  they can come to you either in private or in a group and feel no fear of belittlement.  They want to feel wanted and needed within the organization.  They want to see you pick up the mop and clean the spill by the counter before someone gets hurt.  They want to know that they can count on you.  They want to know that you hear them when they speak, even if you ultimately don’t agree, and decide to do something else.

In introductory business or leadership courses, a distinction is made between authoritative figures and de facto leaders (literally leaders “in fact” who have assumed authority irrespective of title or organizational power).  Anyone can climb an organization’s ladder.  Anyone can be the “boss.”  But only a select few can be leaders, and no business cards are necessary to find them.

If you ever want to be a leader – serve.  And if you want to be a good servant, you must care about the people you serve, and see them as important, valuable pieces of the puzzle that is your organization.  If you can do that, you’ll be surprised how easily people will follow.  They may even ask: “how high?”

1 Response to "The Cardinal Rule of Leadership"

  • Shayla says:

    Great job writing this and giving a good description of what a good leader is.

    What you are saying is so true, I am currently under a person who needs to learn how to be a better leader and to be honest it really makes me wonder how she even got the “Director” title .

    Everyone is really much on their own and there is no sense of “Team Work”.
    She doesn’t really listen to us when we talk, she nods her head but she is really just thinking what she wants to say next.

    She also doesn’t share knowledge and doesn’t implement any new ideas or suggestions that her team provides.

    Empowering behaviors of leader are originally intended to encourage subordinates to take initiatives. Empowering leader supports employees to voice their thoughts actively and also offers more opportunities to share their knowledge in order to search for the solutions by themselves (Arnold et al., 2000; Yun et al., 2006)

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