40. Leaders give everyone a cause. Corollary to rule #39: What's the point of our story? If you want people to care — really to care — enlist them in a cause that they can care about: being part of the team that will go down in history for inventing the most amazing personal computer that the world has ever seen (Apple's Mac); achieving customer loyalty so intense that it becomes the stuff of legends (Nordstrom); executing a strategy with such precision that proud, old competitors are publicly humbled in the market (Home Depot).
People enlist on behalf of a cause. They do the impossible for a cause. For a business, however, they just work. What's your cause?
41. Leaders focus on the soft stuff. People. Values. Character. Commitment. A cause. All of the stuff that was supposed to be too goo-goo to count in business. Yet, it's the stuff that real leaders take care of first. And forever. That's why leadership is an art, not a science.
If leadership were just about hitting your numbers, about driving the troops to meet their quotas, then leadership would just be a math problem. But leadership is a human mystery.
In these times, as the numbers get harder to hit (or even to understand), and as frustration abets the temptation to be a kick-ass, take-charge, top-down leader, we'll see very quickly who keeps an enterprise energized in the face of adversity and ambiguity. And we'll see who is faced with passive resistance, quiet rebellion, and random acts of insubordination.
42. Leaders think — make that know — that they can make a difference. Call it insane optimism. Call it rampant self-confidence. Call it plain stupid. Leaders are convinced that they are going to make a difference. It's not about egotism. It's about having a healthy, unquestioning feeling of mattering. And a leader who radiates (good word, "radiate") a sense of mattering attracts others who share that feeling. And out of that sharing comes a team of people who, by God, will damn well make a difference! Which comes first, the sense of mattering or the ability to matter? Ah, yet another layer to the alchemy of leadership.
43. Leaders always make time to work the phones. If you read the books on leadership, there's a strong undercurrent that says that leaders are people of action, charging about on great white steeds! Well, yes. But leaders are also great talkers. Leadership takes an almost bottomless supply of verbal energy: working the phones, staying focused on your message, repeating the same mantra until you can't stand the sound of your own voice — and then repeating it some more, because just when you start to become bored witless with the message, it's probably starting to seep into the organization. You can't be a leader these days and be the strong, silent type. You have to be an endless talker, a tireless communicator.
44. Leaders listen intently. Leaders talk. Leaders listen. That is, the other side of this coin is also true — again. Leaders listen to what the market is saying, to what the customer is saying, and to what the team is saying. No, you don't have to do everything that your constituents demand that you do. But just by showing that you're listening, really listening, you demonstrate the respect that you accord to them (there's that word "respect" again). Intent, tuned-in listening engenders empathy, creates connectedness, and, ultimately, builds cohesiveness. When the crap hits the fan, as it inevitably will, those are the qualities that will see you through. Listen while you can so that you can lead when you must.
45. Leaders revel in surrounding themselves with people who are smarter than they are. Now hear this: You will not have all of the answers. More important, you are no longer expected to have all of the answers. Nobody can have all of the answers! What you are expected to do is recruit people — at all levels of your organization — who do have the answers. These are the folks who lead you to make the right decisions about how to deal with an unglued world. These are, ultimately, the people you will be known by. Their accomplishments will be your signature, the measure of your tenure.
If you are confident enough to hire people who are more talented than you are, then you will be known as an audacious leader. If you hire only people who are not as talented as you are, then you will appear to be weak and insecure. And you will ultimately fail. So you decide. Do want to be the smartest person in the company? Or do you want to win — and leave a legacy?
46. Great leaders are great pols. Time for a reality check. Leadership is not for the lily-livered. Taking the responsibility to lead others into battle — whether it's at war or at work — isn't for the faint of heart. It's not just the casualties that you need to be able to stomach. It's the real world of organizational politics and inside deal making: doing what it takes to get things done. Dwight Eisenhower didn't become president because of his skills as a general, he became a general because of his skills as a politician. I'm not endorsing playing dirty. I'm just telling you that you can't pretend that the game won't get rough and that you can stay above the fray and still be an effective leader. Period.
47. Leaders make meaning. John Seely Brown, the former head of ceaselessly innovative Xerox PARC, nailed it, especially for these totally insane times: A leader's job isn't just to make decisions and to make products or services. A leader's job is also to make meaning. Why? Because in times like these, people depend on their leaders to absorb all of the chaos, all of the information, all of the change, and to find some meaningful pattern and compelling purpose in the midst of all of the splatter.
48. Leaders learn. The single worst thing that can happen to you as a leader? You exhaust your intellectual capital. Before you became a leader, you accumulated that capital by going to conferences and taking notes. You networked like a lunatic. You kept your eyes and ears open, and you came up with the totally original synthesis that propelled you into the front ranks of leadership. And then you got bogged down in the perpetual politics of implementation and started to dissipate all of that accumulated wisdom. And because you were so damn busy doing, you stopped learning. You became a broken record for yesterday's paradigm. (Hey, it boosted you into orbit.) You listened to yesterday's (closed) circle of "brilliant" advisors. You started to quote yourself! (As I said in In Search of Excellence in 1982 . . .) This is only natural — if you let it happen. Leaders work double overtime to keep it from happening. Learn fast, or get left behind fast.
49. Leaders. . .? I left this one open: You tell me. What is the one key idea for leadership in whacked-out times that you would propose? You can go to TomPeters.com (http://www.tompeters.com/no49.htm) and contribute your idea there, or you can send your thoughts to me via email (email@example.com). What's the one-liner that captures the essence of leadership for you? What do you think leaders need to do to win in the next five years?
50. Leaders know when to leave. Much good work gets undone by those who stay beyond their expiration dates. And it's not just baseball players who do this. It's also CEOs of megacorps. How will you know? When you know an idea won't work before you even try it. When you see the same problem coming around on the merry-go-round, and you've solved it so many times that it's no longer interesting. When you became the leader by challenging conventional wisdom, and now you represent the status quo. When you stop doing numbers one through 49 on this list. At that point, go back to number one. Start over.
Tom Peters, author, speaker, learner, and listener, says that leadership is the scarcest commodity. What do you think? Contact him by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
A version of this article appeared in the March 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.