Leadership Words to Live By


As leaders striving for mastery, we tend to spend a lot of time thinking about, discussing, researching, and practicing our leadership. As well we should. It takes a lot of effort and resolve to become competent in a quality way. But sometimes it can seem there are infinite ways to talk about leadership and limitless things to learn. Aspiring and experienced leaders alike may become overwhelmed with the sheer volume of data, advice, wisdom, models, and approaches there are available. To stay focused, it helps to have a firmly rooted point of view — a leadership philosophy that is adaptive and flexible, yet anchored in unwavering values and time-tested truths. Leaders need words to live by. Words can guide our behaviors and keep us pointed towards our “true north.” If you hope to elicit high performance with integrity, there will have to be something you stand for that drives consistency in your actions and words. Here are the words we live by at ConantLeadership, culled from the experiences of our Founder & CEO, Doug Conant‘s over 40 years leading in the corporate arena. Hopefully they will be helpful to you as you navigate the stormy seas of leadership.

To win in the marketplace, you must first win in the workplace. 

A pithy, but firm, reminder that you cannot expect exemplary or enduring results for all stakeholders without an engaged and productive workforce. Remember, leadership is all about the people. You’ve got to make yourself wholly available to people with your head, heart, and hands. It is unrealistic to expect extraordinary effort and performance without creating an environment where people feel extraordinarily valued. Give them the energy to fight the good fight for the enterprise and they will do the same for you.

The action is in the interaction.

You’re likely familiar with the relentless demands of the modern workplace: meetings, emails, text messages, questions to answer, problems to solve, fires to put out. It’s easy to conclude there is less and less time to get “real work” done.   But reframing these “disruptive” moments as opportunities, rather than hindrances, has powerfully expanded the possibilities of our leadership work. We choose to view every “interruption” that arises not as a distraction  from work, but as the work.

Give them the energy to fight the good fight.

Every single interaction is rife with the potential to become the high point or the low point in someone’s day. Each is a moment in which we can lead impactfully, set expectations, bring clarity to an issue, or infuse a problem with energy and insight. When we view the work of leadership in this empowering way, we can transform ordinary moments into extraordinary ones and move closer to greatness, one conversation at a time.

You must be tough-minded on standards and tender-hearted with people.

Leadership is hard. High expectations are integral to meaningful success. But if we hope to equip people with the tools to meet audacious goals and perform to a superb standard, we must interact with them in a way that makes them want to be their best. To create enduring, high-performance relationships, there can’t be any doubt about our level of sincerity, commitment, and desire to help. Finding a way to deftly bridge the gap between performance expectations and relationships takes skill. That’s why an abundant approach is at the crux of our leadership ideology. This approach rejects the limiting idea of being either tough “or” tender  and embraces the genius of the “and.” In our experience, we’ve got to be both tough on the issues and unmistakably caring with the people if we hope to achieve sustainable results. We owe it to our troops to set the bar high and hold them accountable to meeting or surpassing expectations. And, we owe it to them to support the expectation by offering our help, earnestly and often

You can’t talk your way out of something you behaved your way into. 

This penultimate collection of words to live by is so important because it challenges leaders to always act with integrity. Leadership is ultimately about concrete behavior and performance, not good intentions. So you must do what you say you are going to do. And do it well. Honor your commitments. To be an effective contributor there simply must be quality alignment between your words and your actions. You have no other choice “ you’ll either become known as somebody who does what they say they are going to do, or somebody who does not.

You must do what you say you’re going to do.

When there is discordance between what is promised and what is delivered,  smooth-talking cannot save you “ you’ll simply have to behave your way out of the situation. When you do make mistakes, address them swiftly, thoughtfully, and genuinely. And then move on. But always aim to avoid a tricky situation in the first place by honoring your word dutifully with all the faithfulness you can muster.

How can I help? 

We touched upon this notion in #3 but it bears repeating; mastery of these four little words enables mastery of all the other words to live by. If you really want to show up for people in a palpable way, you’ll have to embody this approach in each moment. Begin every interaction from a place of “how can I help?” When you start this way, your earnest desire to be supportive shines brightly. And, when you follow through by listening and being unmistakably present, people know you are truly there for them, not just paying them lip service. Remember, leadership is not about you. Leaders serve others. Leaders contribute. Above all else, leaders must find powerful ways to be helpful: helpful to their people, helpful to the community, helpful to the enterprise. How can you best leverage your expertise if you don’t ask people what they need?  You can’t. So “ ask regularly, listen faithfully, and follow through resolutely. 

Leaders serve others. Leaders contribute.

These are just some of the words we live our leadership by. We pledge our fidelity to these values as we endeavor to become better leaders in our workplaces, communities, and families.

What words do you live by in your leadership? We encourage you to share your insights in the comments.

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