“The First Rule of Leadership” and the other Four First Rules of Leadership!
By: Dr. Joseph A. Devine

 It has been written, “There is nothing magical about leadership” and yet the very essence of leadership remains elusive to many.  The definitions of leadership and management are used interchangeably and generally incorrectly.  Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964) wrote of defining pornography that he may “never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…”

The same can be said of leadership!  Definitions are seemingly veiled in the fog of cultural, historic, ethnic and professional relativism.  And yet, although we may not be able to articulate a concise definition of leadership, we know it when we “see it.”

As true leadership is “influence,”it is more likely to be felt than seen.  Its effects may be dynamic, intense, transformational, radical, revolutional, transactional, evolutionary or subtle, but leadership will always lead to change.   Bias for change is inherent in the DNA of all true leaders.  Challenging the status quo, disrupting comfort zones, fostering or forcing transformation of individuals, groups and systems is the very essence of leadership. 

Many volumes have been published about leadership and the “flavor of the month” leadership styles.  Most of these provoke thought while some simply repackage old and worn-out theories. Having waded through the fog of researching and teaching leadership theories since 1993, I have synthesized several pragmatic leadership principles.  These principles may serve as the primary content of your “leadership toolbox,”quite distinct from your “management toolbox.”  It is my belief that leadership can be taught and that leadership traits are not exclusively a matter of birth.   I also contend that although “managers lead and leaders manage” they are entirely distinct disciplines and behaviors.

                                             The First Five First Rules of Leadership!

 The First-First Rule


 And yes, this means you!Listen to your inner voice, to your mentors and above all to your followers.  Leadership experts generally preach that leaders need to communicate their vision, their mission and their passion.  Although true, it is only half the equation at best.  Your followers will likely have operational (real world) information that you will need to hear.  They may need clarification or more importantly may simply need you to listen. Be ready and open to hear things that may challenge your assumptions, your perceptions, your skills and yes even your ego. Taking time to listen may enhance your humility and thus your approachability. And when you do speak, do so with an economy of words. Learn and practice the principle known as “Napoleon’s Corporal.” (Look it up!) Communicate with simplicity and precision so that virtually any follower will understand.  Then ask them what they think … And at the very least your periodic silence may reduce the probability of you saying something profoundly stupid!


                    The Second-First Rule


 This does not mean that you get to choose and groom your successor

It means that all leaders have a sacred generational responsibility to prepare their followers to ascend through the ranks in an ethical, efficient and effective manner. A fundamental purpose of leadership is to grow “smart, thoughtful and reflective leaders”for the future. Follower behaviors evolve into leader behaviors through the processes of modeling, training, educating, delegating, empowering and trust. Each of these processes must be aligned in policy and practice. Trust is predicate to all dimensions of organizational leadership and is especially so with new personnel and new promotions.  Evolving leaders will thrive in an organization that is not averse to reasonable risk. This is directly relevant to the development of decision-making skills among new leaders.  Avoidance of a risk-averse culture is foundational to the development of an organizational culture that encourages new ideas, tactics, strategies and direction.  Provide all supervisors with “toolboxes” stocked with relevant tools prior to assigning them increased authority or responsibility.  Prepare them for the inevitable “critical shift”!  Mentor and support them as they make their way. And gradually prepare yourself to transition out… Those you hire or promote near the end of your career will define your leadership.  Ensure that they are well-chosen, socialized, trained, and educated, for they will be a significant part of your professional legacy. And always, always reinforce success! It’s not all within your power, but do your best to leave the place better than you found it. Don’t let F Troop be your legacy!  

     The Third-First Rule


(AKA Ass Kissers)

 Sycophants are not your friends!  They are organizational, blood-sucking, disease-carrying ticks!  Like parasitic insects that will attach to you upon your ascension through the ranks, they will pat you on the back; agree with all you do and will generally make you look like a lame-ass clown.  Comprising your inner circle with sycophants is a symptom of a leader’s presumptive weakness.  Likewise, surrounding yourself with well-intended personnel who are just like you is at best a missed opportunity.  Although natural to trust those you can best relate to as a leader, you will likely do better by diversifying your inner circle.  The 16thPresident of the United States, Abraham Lincoln had the courage to surround himself with both allies and rivals. Doris Kearns Goodwin titled her book “A Team of Rivals”after Lincoln’s unique presidential cabinet.  The concept of a “team” comprised of “rivals” is seemingly oxymoronic.  And yet it worked well through some of the most challenging years in United States history. Lincoln staffed his cabinet with men who would challenge and debate his ideas, policies and strategies.  This is demonstrative of Lincoln’s confidence, character and emotional intelligence.  Yes there are risks in this strategy as the debate must conclude, decisions must be executed and the ultimate responsibility remains with the leader. The Harvard Business Review writes that “Again and again, Lincoln shared responsibility for others’ mistakes, and so people became very loyal to him.”In conclusion, consider surrounding yourself with a mix of those who are like you and those who are different, who think differently, who have reasonably contrary perspectives, experiences, knowledge that you may not and the courage to tell you what you need to hear.  And lastly: don’t be an ass kisser-it’s not leader like!

   The Fourth-First Rule


(Says it all)

 And yes, this includes you!  Don’t hire any, don’t retain any, don’t promote any, don’t tolerate any and don’t be one!  Sounds simple, right?  Look around … not so simple!  Getting the right people on the bus and in the right seats on the bus all while getting the wrong people off the bus can be a daunting challenge. This is especially so within agencies administered by “Civil Service.” It is likely that you inherited a bus that has been poorly maintained, inadequately staffed, damaged by corruption, nepotism and politics … but there will be many dedicated, passionate professionals on that bus waiting for a true leader to transcend the status quo. This is the very essence of a “Leadership Challenge”!  Stand up, embrace it, challenge the status quo and prevail!  Many will hide from such a challenge, but true leaders will have the courage to lead as “The credit belongs to the man in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly…”(Theodore Roosevelt: Citizenship in a Republic”, April 1910.) As a leader you are in the fulcrum of all forces within the arena. It will get ugly-if you need a hug go home…leadership is a contact sport!

(*Title and concept borrowed from: The No Asshole Rule –Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’tby Robert I. Sutton, PhD.  Business Plus 2010)

The Fifth–First Rule


(AKA: Know When To Go!)

 And yes, this means you!  If you begin to think and feel like a dinosaur and look like a fossil, it’s probably time to go.  You and only you will know when that time has come, but others will be sure to nudge you. Leave on your terms and when the time is right for your organization.  Nothing good comes from overstaying, not for you and not for your followers.  Put your ego aside and make an objective, altruistic decision. Leadership is stewardship, not ownership. Know when to let go! If you prepared yourself for this transition as you prepared your successor you will be ready!  (See: The Second-First Rule!)

The time to get out of the way will come naturally … do so with grace and dignity.  Go on your terms or you will inevitably go on the terms dictated by others.  As stewards, it is a leader’s responsibility to leave “the place” better than they found it. So, don’t turn it into Jurassic Park!  Go home…and Shut the F’…Up!