40 Years of Leadership Taught Me 3 Rules That All Managers Should Follow

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Originally published in Inc.

By Joel Peterson

In more than four decades in the corporate world, I’ve learned many management lessons — some the hard way.

I’ve also endeavored to share some of the wisdom I’ve picked up from those lessons with the sharp, ambitious, young men and women at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, where I’ve taught advanced management classes for the past 20 years.

Perhaps the simplest set of management tools I know can be summed up this way:

  • People mean more than things.
  • Action means more than words.
  • The whole means more than its parts.

These three noble truths, a phrase I borrow from Buddhism, can help experienced leaders facing challenges as well as students starting off in the business world. Let’s break them down:

  1. People mean more than things.

Great businesses are built with great people. That means focusing on and valuing every team member.

It also means making smart hires for those who share the company’s values, and fast fires if they don’t. Letting people go quickly may sound uncaring, but it’s a must to develop trust in an organization. Then, once you have the right people in place, you can start investing in their growth and showing them respect by implementing thoughtful coaching and employee development practices.

Another humanizing tip: Display an interest in your employees by walking around frequently, helping them see how what they do helps what you do. Celebrate their successes, too, and take the blame for team mistakes as well as deflect any credit aimed at you.

  1. Action means more than words.

Years ago, a colleague of mine passed away. I shared my very real grief with her family over the phone, sent proper written condolences and expressed genuine concern — everything one would expect a caring leader to do.

Another partner at the firm, however, went the extra mile — literally. He flew, with no fanfare, to the family’s side and spent time with them mourning. He also quietly arranged a scholarship fund for the deceased’s child.

We both had the right intentions. I talked; he walked. Ever since that event, I’ve strived to express my values through doing rather than saying.

  1. The whole means more than its parts.

Insights often come from dissecting a problem and analyzing the removed parts. That’s how managers are trained. The next step — using new parts and or putting the old ones back in a better way — is often never taught.

That’s the key difference between being critical and being a problem-solver. It doesn’t mean the solution has to fit perfectly. As the great Chinese teacher Confucius said centuries ago: “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”

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