New Series: Mickey’s Rules

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For years I kept General Colin Powell’s “Rules” on a worn, type-written sheet of paper somewhere on my desk. His Rules had been published in a news magazine article, and I thought they were fabulous, so I typed them up and added a few of my own to the bottom. Over the years, I developed my own “Rules” that gradually replaced “Colin Powell’s Rules” even though that worn piece of paper still adorns my desk.9780679432968.OL.0.m

I’ve found these rules to be very useful to me, and I’ve regretted it every time I’ve violated them. The eleven rules listed below are my guidelines for relating to other people and to my work and reminders about leading my organization.  In the coming weeks, I’ll take each in turn and discuss it.  In the mean time….here they are!

  1. Have a direction and know what it is. Go there.
  2. Don’t spook the herd. Emotional demonstrations are always counter-productive and stifle initiative.
  3. Don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of “good.”
  4. “Can’t” never gets anything done. Keep it out of your vocabulary.
  5. The first report is usually wrong. Be patient and ask questions.
  6. Asking the right questions is usually better than knowing the right answers.
  7. The other team is not the enemy. The enemy is the enemy; don’t confuse the two.
  8. Be curious. Ask “Why?” a lot. Keep asking until you understand.
  9. Walk the horses. No one can go full throttle all the time.
  10. Drink your water, eat your lunch, and make new friends.
  11. Check your “moral azimuth”…if you’re doing something that you wouldn’t want posted on the Internet, it’s probably illegal, immoral, or fattening.

Leaders Expect High Standards

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Each organization in an institution or company has a job to do: Leaders exist to execute their jobs in support of their company’s objectives. That means, internal to an organization, leaders should support their bosses and their institutional goals. My experience is that people rise to the leaders’ expectations. Set high standards and hold people to them, and people will meet them almost every time (conversely, if you set low standards…). Standards must be uniform; everyone knows how counter-productive “teacher’s pets” can be. Everyone wants to be successful and wants to feel that sense of accomplishment.

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Photo credit: Washington Post

Expecting high standards is more than merely setting high sales goals or demanding perfection in quality. It means that leaders expect and demonstrate high personal and professional standards in the conduct of their lives and business. I don’t mean we create a “Stepford company” of robotic overachievers, but we do expect that ethical behavior at work means that we have ethical behavior in our private lives. We serve our cause, or institution, and each other best when this is the case. Entrepreneur and co-founder of Medical Imaging Company, combat veteran, and former A-10 pilot David Specht once shared his theory about why people fail that I think is very astute: “If someone fails, they usually fail for one of three reasons: either they weren’t trained, they weren’t resourced, or they weren’t led.” Dave’s view is one I agree with, and it illustrates the responsibility for the leader to lead his team by investing himself in the team’s success. If there is failure, the leader usually has himself to blame, at least initially.

Apart from George Bailey’s uncle in the film It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s a rare case indeed where the failure of an employee is solely responsible for an organization’s failure. However, even if it’s the sole employee’s fault for a failure, it’s the leader’s responsibility to get the task accomplished. An effective leader accepts responsibility for the failure of the task and diverts praise for success to their teammates and subordinates. It’s very unseemly for a leader to try to blame others for the failure of the team, just as it’s a morale killer for the team when the leader tries to take the glory for the success. The leader in those cases isn’t fooling anyone; everyone knows success is a team effort, and the leader is ultimately accountable for failure. Trying to divert attention only lowers the leader in the esteem of others.

Moral Courage

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Most of us will never lead troops in combat or run into a burning building to save someone, so physical courage is not something that will ordinarily be required of us. Moral courage, however, is required of everyone daily. Daily decisions about how to do our jobs and live our lives form us into the kind of person that we are. Individual decisions certainly have more or less weight in importance, but nonetheless they contribute to our character. Do we do the inspection or merely sign off on the form? Perform the inventory or just guess at how much is there? Do we take time to do a proper performance review for our employees, or do we just have coffee and “call it even”?

Poor decisions can aggregate into poor performance. Not doing an inspection of a piece of equipment may mean that we miss a safety issue that could be dangerous.  Failing to count the number of widgets on the shelf could lead to lost sales, or worse, someone being falsely accused of theft. A leader who fails to do proper employee feedback could inadvertently encourage bad behavior by subordinates.

Moral courage is more than just following company policy; it’s also having the courage to act in a situation where there’s injustice. In 2013 Michael Garcia, a waiter at a Houston restaurant, refused to serve a customer who he felt was being disrespectful to a special needs child at another table. It was a risk because his boss could’ve fired him, but Mr. Garcia believed he was standing up for a person who was unable to stand up for himself. The customers left the restaurant, and the special needs child’s family wasn’t even aware of the exchange. Mr. Garcia became a hero to that family and to the families of special needs kids around the country. In the process, the restaurant got some free publicity, and the city of Houston got an example of how to concretely demonstrate respect.

Another employee didn’t get the same response as Mr. Garcia, demonstrating why it sometimes takes courage to act. Twyla DeVito of Shelby, Ohio, watched a regular patron and board member at the American Legion post where she worked get into a car appearing to her to be drunk, and so she called the police.  She was subsequently fired by the Post Commander for her actions. DeVito defended her actions by saying, “If he had gotten in a wreck that would have been on me, because I was on my shift…I chose to possibly save a life.” I’m certainly not going to second guess either her decision or her boss’, but the entire situation serves to illustrate that sometimes there are no “good” decisions; there are only “least worst” decisions. Ms. DeVito had the moral courage to follow her convictions and do what she thought was right.

Practicing moral courage daily might not make a person a hero, but will work wonders for a leader who wants to encourage character in their subordinates.