The 3 Cardinal Rules of Leadership

As published by Idealog Magazine on October 23, 2013


As an executive coach I spend a lot of time talking, thinking and hearing about leadership. But time and time again in my coaching sessions and workshops I find myself coming back to three basic principles. I like to think of them as the fundamental pillars of leadership.

Whether you are embarking on your first management position or are a seasoned CEO, these three things are always a valuable reference point.

Here are what I consider to be the 3 Cardinal Rules of Effective Leadership:

1. Questions Vs Telling. Learn to love the question. For the ‘deliverer’ it feels good to tell people what to do. We feel empowered, task focused and action driven when giving instructions.

But put yourself in the listener’s shoes. Do you respond well when told what to do? Or, do you perform (and learn) better when given the opportunity to explore, clarify the key issues and address the situation yourself with support from your boss?

Coaching questions facilitate learning and capability. Telling does not.

As an example, let’s say you need to confront poor market share results with a member of your team. Rather than you telling them what’s wrong and giving instructions on what to do next, try asking questions with prefixes such as “how long have you noticed…?”, “what do you think is causing this…?” and “what would you like to see happen next…?”

A caveat here, think conversation not interrogation – as leaders our job is to facilitate, not force.

2. Shut up and listen. When you are having a conversation at work, are you fully engaged? Are you really listening to what the other person has to say, or are you just waiting for them to finish so you can say your piece?

Listening with absolute intent and full presence shows others that you have their best interests at heart. It therefore helps to build trust and stronger relationships.

Think about it, would you be more likely to work harder and perform better for a leader who you listens to your perspective (not necessarily agreeing with you, but at least listening) or someone who interrupts, seems distracted when they are with you, or misses the point you are trying to make?

3. Get on the same page about what success looks like.  Then let go of the ‘how’.

So often in my coaching practice, leaders have epiphanies around non-performance on this one.  They realise they have not spent enough time up front with their team to ensure they are all on the same page about what success looks like in an area.

To use the metaphor of a tropical island, if I ask five of you to describe a tropical Island, you will no doubt come up with a number of variations. Some of you will describe a tiny atoll with nothing but a palm tree on it. Others will describe a lavish resort on Denarau Island!  The point is, if we are all crystal clear on exactly what the picture of success is, we are already ahead.

You can always build in check points to reduce your anxiety or ensure you are on the right course, but allowing your team some freedom on discovering their own ‘how’ can be hugely motivating.

With information overload, it can be challenging to take stock of what’s really important when it comes to leadership. I encourage you to look at the concept of leadership through a no-frills lens.

As Confucius so wisely said – “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”


  1. 5 Ways For Leaders To Build Empathy | Suzi McAlpine on October 16, 2014 at 10:24 pm

    […] Listen more. Listening with absolute intent and full presence shows others you have their best interests at heart. It therefore helps to build trust and stronger relationships. […]

  2. […] don’t feel you have to fight an idea on your own.  Knowing when to shut up and listen or let others have their say and support your idea is an important part of successful challenging.  […]

  3. […] got really clear about what I wanted from this ultimately – and what success looks like to […]

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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