Establishing First Principles

Establishing First Principles

I believe that the primary job of a leader is to build a vibrant leadership culture. If this is true, then establishing clear “First Principles” is something all leaders must skillfully do.

First Principles are those truths that guide conduct. They are the short, clear statements that team members remember, accept, and do when the moment demands. They are the words that allow every person in the firm to know what is expected and to know what is right in every situation.

I’ve shared here before that years ago I took the lead of an organization that had some serious challenges. I established certain principles of conduct.

  1. The right thing to do is always the right thing to do.
  2. Always over-communicate. If in doubt, over-communicate.
  3. No surprises. See #2, just do it earlier.
  4. We want to be like Disneyland. Fun and loving on the outside with the administrative and technical systems hidden “behind the scenes.”

Out of context, these may not seem that impressive. At the time, though, each of these maxims addressed specific issues in the organization. By listing these principles, by talking about them constantly, my leadership team and I made them the mainstays of our culture. They “worked.” People knew what was expected. They lost the fear and uncertainty that had beset them previously, and they began to act with energy and confidence.

Winston Churchill was a master of this. He had learned to boil down his core principles into terse statements. He repeated these often—in his speeches, on the streets, to crowds of cheering workers, to his cabinet. Some were almost demands: “Action this Day!” Some were crass. “Keep Buggering On,” usually reduced to simply “KBO,” was an off-color favorite. There were others. Churchill built a culture with these maxims, and soon they were repeated at the pub, by the tank crew, from the air traffic control tower, and even by mothers to their children.

More often than leaders failing by doing the wrong thing, they fail by not doing the right things. Absence of influence is the greatest mistake most leaders make. Their team members don’t know what to do or where the firm is going. They are hesitant in certain circumstances because no one has anticipated that moment and provided a guide. This is a failure of leadership.

If I were to roam your firm asking your team members what core truths the organization is built upon, what would they say? If I were to posit a fictional situation to some of your workers, what principles from your lips and pen would they say would guide them to do the right thing?

Everything you do in leadership builds a culture of one type or another. It is best to be intentional about building a healthy, success-oriented culture. Part of doing this is that you Make Your Maxims Known. Determine the principles you want to build upon, and make sure they live vibrantly in every heart and soul under your influence.

A final thought: Once you set your maxims, be scrupulously consistent with them. Remember that more is caught than is taught. People will do what you do quicker than they will do what you say. Make the two—what you say and what you do—the same thing.