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3 counterintuitive rules to being a great leader

My first leadership role was thrust upon me at 10 years old; when I was made School Captain of my primary school. One day, I was given a shiny metal badge with the words School Captain embossed on it. “Congratulations, said the headteacher, with no further instructions, whatsoever. 

I assumed – incorrectly, it turned out – that I was to be her deputy. I only realized my error when my class stopped talking to me because I’d told the teacher that a couple of them had been naughty!

About 25 years later, I was a senior leader in an organization. New to the job, I decided, for the first time ever, to bring all of my leadership books into my office and to display them on my bookshelves. I literally had a library on leadership and people loved borrowing my books.

Until, about a month after I’d accepted the job, I was fired suddenly by a new boss who had arrived just a couple of weeks before. 

Tears streaming down my face, I packed up all my books on leadership, for a long, slow painful drive home. (I cried for the entire journey.) I took every single book on leadership I owned to a charity shop that very afternoon. I knew that leadership was either in me, or it wasn’t. Either way, I didn’t need the books any longer.

The problem with leadership is that most of our role models are either superheroes, who don’t exist in real life, or they are larger than life characters who saved the day in extremely challenging circumstances. 

And leadership is messy. No matter how many leadership books you read… 

What I’ve discovered, over 40 years of messy leadership, is that there are 3 key, counterintuitive rules to being a great leader:

  1. The Reverse Golden Rule
  2. The Diamond Rule
  3. The Snowflake Rule

1. The Reverse Golden Rule

We all know the Golden Rule: treat others as you want to be treated. 

The Reverse Golden Rule says: 

Treat yourself how you would treat others.

Great leaders are often selfless. They’ll do everything for their team, their company or their community. You work all day until you’re exhausted and collapse. And then you get up the next morning and work some more. Sound familiar? 

This feeds you for a while but if you’re not careful, you’ll eventually collapse completely.

Make time to take care of you, first. Just because something is a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not true. 

Take time to put on your oxygen mask, first. 

Great leaders are great coaches by design, if not also training. Which means your job is to be your own best client. 

I’m extraordinarily good at helping leaders take care of themselves. Not so good at doing it for myself! 

Which is why I’m making myself take off the month of July. If I can’t take care of myself, how can I care for you?

2. The Diamond Rule 

Diamond and graphite are both forms of the element carbon. Yet, diamond is the hardest mineral on the planet and graphite is used to make pencil lead.

Polished diamonds are beautiful. Graphite is so soft that it makes a mess on a piece of paper. 

The Diamond Rule states: You can never get too big. And you can never get too messy.

You can never get too big… 

Bragging is a lost art. And rather than feeling envious, top performers tend to feel inspired by others’ accomplishments. 

Healthy top performers use admiration and even jealousy as fuel. Wanting what someone else has can inspire you to action. 

I was recently discussing this idea with an African American leader with a PhD. She told me one of the reasons that it’s hard for her to truly share her accomplishments. For Black people in America, sharing their achievements often resulted in their death. Humility was literally life-saving. That’s a feeling that is really deep and goes back generations. It humbled me to realize the depth of this impact on her. 

Great coaches create a safe place for you to brag. And, it’s worth remembering that it’s not bragging if you’ve done it.

You can never get too messy

When you’re a top performer, it’s often not safe or appropriate for you to share your struggles with your board of directors, your investors, your senior team, your customers or clients. 

Sometimes there are things you don’t even want to share with your husband or wife. 

And one of the dark sides of being a high performer is a need to prove yourself. 

But as high-level leaders, we crave an opportunity to speak our truth and to share what’s really going on. 

On a regular basis, I help my clients share the messiness by finishing this sentence stem:

What I don’t want you to know about me is… 

Great coaches create a safe place for you to get messy. Success is on the other side of failure, mistakes and screwing up. Freedom is on the other side of owning your failures, your mistakes and your screw ups. 

3.The Snowflake Rule

Snowflakes were thought for a long time to be so visually unique from one another that no two were ever the same. 

But scientists have discovered recently, that when grown under the same precise lab conditions, it’s possible to create two almost identical snowflakes. 

What makes snowflakes different in the real world, is that each snowflake takes a different turbulent path through the atmosphere, on it’s journey to earth. So, each twist, turn and fall grants it a unique symmetry.

Your job as a leader is to be unique. And what makes you unique is your own turbulent path through life. Every twist, turn and fall grants you your unique symmetry. So don’t hold them back from the world. 

Over 2,000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle cited three modes of persuasion: pathos, ethos, and logos. Pathos appeals to emotion by citing tragedy or sadness. Ethos appeals to authority or credibility by citing your distinguishing character and guiding principle. Logos focuses on facts and reason, as opposed to emotional appeals.

In recent years, the word snowflake has become a derogatory term that implies a person has an inflated sense of uniqueness or that they are unable to deal with opposing opinions.

Ignore that. Be a special snowflake! Share your struggles. Share your successes. Share your principles. Share your ideas. 

I Gotta Be Me

For years, at my Intensives, I have played Sammy Davis, Jr.’s song, I Gotta Be Me.

Whether I’m right or whether I’m wrong
Whether I find a place in this world or never belong
I gotta be me, I’ve gotta be me…  

I’ll go it alone, that’s how it must be
I can’t be right for somebody else
If I’m not right for me
I gotta be free, I’ve gotta be free
Daring to try, to do it or die
I’ve gotta be me

In his own words, Sammy Davis, Jr. was “the only black, Puerto Rican, one-eyed, Jewish entertainer in the world.” He also starred on Broadway, was a movie star, had his own TV variety show, reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and became a star in Las Vegas. He received an award from the NAACP, he won a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy. He received the Kennedy Center Honor for a lifetime of contribution to American culture. And he was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

If you want to be a great leader, Be You. 

Now take a minute and let me know which of these 3 rules you need to work on most, right now – and why.

Love. Rich


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