The Principles of Leadership

Leadership is by definition a contextual activity including a leader, those following the leader, and a larger social and operational environment.  So what constitutes good leadership in one situation may be very different from good leadership in another (more on that later).

Leadership is a human activity.  Despite the wondrous variety and complexity of human beings and human culture all people have far more in common than not.  I am firmly convinced that notwithstanding the plethora of often-contradictory material that has been produced on the subject of “leadership” there are enduring principles, fundamental truths, which, when applied wisely, will yield good leadership in any context.

The danger of offering a list is that the conversation can become about the list rather than about the subject.  I’m going to take that risk and offer a list, however, I don’t pretend that it is THE LIST, graven in stone and, like the law of the Medes and Persians, changing not.  That being said, the ten Principles of Leadership which the Canadian Armed Forces have articulated are derived from the hard-won experience of military leaders over the millennia.  Over the next few weeks we will look at each of those principles and consider how it might be expressed in a non-military context: a large corporate or government office, a small business, or a not-for-profit.

Oh, that contextual thing.  One of the Principles of Leadership that I learned as an Officer Cadet was: “know your soldiers and promote their welfare”. One of the expressions of that in Army culture was that a leader needed to take an interest in the personal lives of his or her soldiers with the intention of helping them to deal with pressing or intractable problems.  (This is done for both compassionate and very pragmatic reasons:  a soldier dealing with deadly weapons in dangerous situations should not be distracted by worry about problems at home.)  After I left the Army and began working as a leader in a civilian organization it came to my attention that one of my personnel was dealing with a stressful and demanding personal issue.  I sat down with them to have a candid discussion about the issue and what could be done to help them.   I very quickly realized that I was, in the context of this new culture, doing something inappropriate if not downright offensive.  In this context “know your personnel and promote their welfare” was expressed in a very different way.  (I apologized profusely and we moved on.)

Do you believe that there are enduring truths or fundamental principles which underpin good leadership?  Have you found “good leadership” to mean different things in different contexts?  Let’s talk about it.