Leadership
May 7, 2012

Words to live by

One Piece Of Paper

Mike Figliuolo

Jossey-Bass, 238 pages, $33.95 

 

Do you know what you’re about? Could you describe your leadership approach to someone who works with you? To yourself?

That would be challenging for most of us. We wouldn’t quite know where to start, since leadership covers such vast terrain. Leadership also involves contradictions, and others – let alone ourselves – may not fully understand what drives us. Moreover, even if we have a good handle on our leadership ethos, we may have trouble expressing it to others because we have learned when discussing such matters to talk in high-flying platitudes or buzzwords.

Mike Figliuolo can help. The former U.S. combat officer and senior executive, now a consultant, believes it’s possible to put down what makes us tick as a leader in clearly understood words on one sheet of paper. He calls it a leadership maxims approach, because it involves, through a process of introspection, summoning up 15 to 20 emotionally powerful statements or reminders of personal events that tend to guide our behaviours on a daily basis.

Take, “He’s under the tank, sir.” That will seem obscure to you, but it’s highly meaningful to Figliuolo and the people who served under him in the military the day an officer approached an 18-year-old private who was leaning against a tank he drove, smoking a cigarette on a break. The private quickly put out the cigarette, and saluted. “Where’s Lieutenant Figliuolo?” the officer briskly asked.

The driver pointed toward the tank, where a pair of boots was sticking out from underneath the vehicle. “Maybe you didn’t understand my question, private. Where is Lieutenant Figliuolo?”

“He’s under the tank, sir.”

“Excuse me?”

“I said he’s under the tank, sir.”

And indeed, he was. When asked why by the astonished officer, Figliuolo replied he was fixing the track. “Why?” the officer asked, eyes widened. 

“Because it’s broken, and I’m already done with all my other responsibilities, sir.”

To that officer, using wrenches was for privates, not lieutenants. It made no sense that Figliuolo was performing maintenance on the vehicle. But the driver was exhausted, and Figliuolo had offered to take over while he had a break. Word quickly spread, and Figliuolo became a minor celebrity to the troops, a “soldier’s officer.” More importantly, the incident – and those words on his one piece of paper – remind him to appreciate his team’s reality and that he is not above any work that needs to be performed for them to be successful.

But the maxims may not encapsulate incidents. They may be words of advice from treasured mentors and colleagues, perhaps remembered pungently because they came after a screw-up. Or they may be phrases that capture what makes you tick – or what makes people you emulate tick. They may be song lyrics or motivational phrases that inspire you, or images that stand for something that you find deeply important.

“The most important attribute of maxims are that they are clear, pithy, and personally meaningful. By being short and direct, the maxim is easy to remember and access. By being personally meaningful, the maxim elicits a powerful emotional response that leads to behaviour change. By being from your own experience, the maxim serves as a vehicle to share your stories with your team and strengthen the bonds of understanding and trust you have with them,” he declares in One Piece Of Paper.

He divides up leadership into four categories, to help you clarify your approach:

  • Leading yourself: What motivates you and what are your rules of personal conduct? What do you want to look like and stand for in the future?
  • Leading the thinking: Where are you taking the organization and how will you innovate to drive change? What are your standards of performance for how you will safely get to your destination?
  • Leading your people: How can you lead them as individuals rather than treating them like faceless cogs in the machine?
  • Leading a balanced life: How do you define and achieve balance, avoiding burning out?

Let’s explore those more deeply, starting with leading yourself. “Nobody is going to follow you if you do not know where you are going. You need to have a clear set of goals and standards for yourself, because it enables you to focus on what’s important and it gives your team something to identify with and support,” he observes.

To understand this aspect of leadership better, he offers five questions that you must answer. Why did you get out of bed today? How will you shape your future? What guidelines do you live by? When you fall down, how do you pick yourself back up? How do you hold yourself accountable?

For each, you should come up with a maxim or two that is deeply relevant to you. “He never stopped learning, teaching and coaching” sums up his own developmental philosophy. “It’s hard to shave if you can’t look yourself in the mirror” is a reminder of ethics, as is, “What would Nana say?”

It’s also vital that you lead the thinking in your team. You must be alert to new ideas, trends, opportunities and risks. “The higher you rise in your organization, the less doing and the more thinking you are expected to do,” he reminds us. The maxims should help you look at the world from new and different perspectives, breaking out of the stagnant thinking that might grip your organization.

Here the questions you need to answer with maxims are: What standard do you hold your team to? Where are you taking your people? How will you foresee the future? After all that thinking is done how will you drive action?

For him, a starting point is the maxim, “In God we trust. All others bring data.” He pushes past the inertia in organizations by questioning practices, asking, successively about an issue: “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?” By repeating the question to probe beyond any answer he unearths, eventually he digs deeply enough to find an insight or opportunity to improve something. And then, to move toward action, he asks: “So what? So what? So what? So what? So what?” In terms of decision making, he applies the maxim: “If you choose not to decide you have still made a choice.” And from his military days, he falls back on, “In case of doubt, attack!”

When it comes to leading your people, the thought-starter questions he offers are: What is your natural style? How will you remember to treat your team members as individuals? How will you stay connected to your team’s reality? How will you commit to your people’s growth? He stresses that while management is task-focused, leadership is people-focused, and you must make sure you can inspire subordinates while being true to your own personality and style.

“Kick up. Kiss down,” is one of his guiding maxims, as is, “Don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions.” He remembers to listen with the maxim, “You have two ears and one mouth for a reason.” And, of course, “He’s under the tank, sir” offers powerful guidance.

Finally, you must lead a balanced life to be effective. Here your maxims will flow from considering three questions: How will you define your boundaries? How will you keep things in perspective? What are you passionate about?

When he was moaning one day to his superior about the latest organizational travails, the boss pointedly observed, “Burger King is hiring.” That keeps things in perspective for him, as well as when he is stressed out the phrase, “It’s only ____,” to remind him that people aren’t dying over what he is fussing about. “A bad day fishing is better than a good day at work” reminds him to take vacations.

When you have answered his questions and developed your maxims, share them with others. “Sharing your maxims provides those around you with a window into who you are as a person and as a leader,” he says. H

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