I left the faculty of Washington State University in 1980 to join Texas Instruments as a systems programmer. I was seeking a career that would provide more money and mobility for my family. While academia didn’t provide much financial compensation, it did offer a number of nonmonetary perks, including flexible hours, summer vacations, and inspiring environs. By comparison, working 50 weeks a year in a windowless cubicle at TI felt like a jail sentence.
Cooped up in corporate purgatory, I soon resolved to make personal sacrifices only when I could identify distinct payoffs for the company or my own career. Therefore, I had little tolerance for employees who lacked commitment and for managers who failed to address performance issues. I was extremely outspoken. It felt good to speak out, but my colleagues disapproved of my behavior — and they let me know. Finally, I became so miserable that I asked to meet with my boss’s boss, Martin (not his real name).
A longtime manager with TI, Martin was a slight, serious man with impeccable integrity. I told him I was tired of feeling like a bitch. He replied, “You’re not here to be liked. You’re here to be respected. Keep doing what you believe is right.”
Since then, I’ve learned to temper my behavior a bit, but I still find myself returning to Martin’s advice when the going gets tough. Here are three leadership truths that have guided my behavior over the past 20 years.
Speak the Unvarnished Truth
While a successful company must toot its own horn, upper management must honestly acknowledge past shortcomings and discuss areas of improvement. If a manager always attributes failure to external factors — marketplace shifts and bad hires — without acknowledging his contributions to the situation, he will never overcome the weaknesses that hinder success. When he fails again, he will waste valuable brainpower avoiding the truth. He will also compromise his ability to lead.
I know an entrepreneurial sales manager who helped vault his company to landmark success and who was later terminated because he had not “scaled” to the job. During his subsequent job hunt, he said things like, “When I was responsible for sales, revenue grew 70% a year.” Great. So why were you canned? He should have answered the question up front, saying something like, “I found that my management style was better suited to smaller teams, so I left to find another startup.” Because this person never faced his own shortcomings, he wound up repeating the same story with subsequent employers until he ultimately lost the professional credibility to manage in high-risk situations.
Shine a critical light in your own direction, and you will foster trust among your team members. When you make a mistake — and you will — your employees will trust your judgment and your ability to deliver the necessary remedy.
Rethink the Future — Always
Many legendary managers brag about a gut intuition that helps them recognize problem areas in need of change. This leadership intuition may sound remarkable, even romantic, but it does nothing to advance trust and loyalty within teams. Managers who use analytical skills to evaluate assumptions, recognize mistakes, and make adjustments accordingly will thrive.
True leaders will openly identify past weaknesses, and then rethink their battle plans and articulate those changes to the people they manage. They will adopt a new vision when needed and make company-wide buy-in a priority. Those who follow intuition alone will earn only contempt, not to mention a thrash-and-burn reputation.
Don’t Let Blunders Get You Down
Your employees must trust that you will not abandon the company’s interests, even in the face of emotional and financial hardship. They will remain committed only if they trust their leaders will persevere. This theory harkens back to the comitatus model of leadership in medieval Germanic cultures: While the chieftain and warriors recognized their codependence, the chieftain was obligated to demonstrate the strongest courage and skill.
Few of us demonstrate all of these skills consistently. As much as we hate to admit it, our own fears and inadequacies limit us. Moreover, the people we manage see our failings clearly. We cannot run. We cannot hide. We must own up to our shortcomings and demonstrate a commitment to the company and cause.