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The Best Leaders are Short on Rules but Adamant About Principles

Lessons learned from Homer Simpson


Homer Simpson needs rules. He’s a dolt (albeit a funny one!) who works in a nuclear power plant. Generalities and “using your own good judgment” aren’t positive things. Most of us aren’t Homer Simpson.

The principles that govern a power plant are probably something such as safety above all, precision a close second, tightly scheduled maintenance and repair and training close to perfection. (I made those up; I’ve never been in a nuclear power plant.)

Whereas the rules that Homer needs are more akin to: “Pull down the red knob 12 inches with moderate tension if the reactor reaches 10 million degrees Celsius.”

The best leaders I’ve worked with were short on rules but adamant about principles. And they didn’t have hundreds; they had a few big ones. The people who worked in those environments had to be smart, creative and committed enough to figure out how to do their best work.

CEOs and senior leaders must work primarily with principles. Their board doesn’t tell them exactly how to do anything (unless they’re fools) and gives them great latitude. Although I find “Don’t be evil” — a former Google motto — to be a bit broad and hard to interpret in many circumstances, there are other examples of principles that intelligent people use to run a damn good organization (Ray Dalio recently wrote a lengthy book about this, and it’s refreshing).

Ritz-Carlton’s motto is: “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” That’s a pretty good way to describe the behavior they’re looking for.

The U.S. Marines make good use of principles. I referenced James Mattis in a recent post, and he does a wonderful job of identifying how he used principles as a leader on the battlefield and for a short time in the Trump administration. My son was in the Marines, and he had numerous stories about the latitude they had to do their job (even in combat), so long as you didn’t violate the principles.

The people who work for you like your rules as much as you liked your mother’s rules as a teenager.  You might need some of them, but your employees will be more committed and have more enjoyment if you lead with principles (well-thought-out and very well communicated, to be sure) rather than rules.

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Todd Ordal

Todd Ordal is president of Applied Strategy®. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Todd is the author of Never Kick a Cow Chip On A Hot Day: Real Lessons for Real CEOs and Those Who Want To Be (Morgan James Publishing, 2016). Connect with Todd on LinkedIn, Twitter, call 303-527-0417 or email todd@toddordal.com.

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