"…I invite you to embark on that journey of understanding who you are as a leader, who you want to be, and how you would like to get there. You are going to define your entire leadership philosophy—on one piece of paper."
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As a leader, communicating what you expect of your team and what they can expect of you can be both a difficult and intimidating process. When expectations aren’t communicated effectively, it can lead to confusion, lack of trust, an unmotivated team, differing interpretations of expectations, and a multitude of other negative outcomes. Mike Figliuolo, a leadership expert and Managing Director of thoughtLEADERS, LLC, has distilled what he has learned and imparted to other leaders about creating a leadership manifesto (in the form of a one page maxim) into One Piece of Paper, his first book. A 238 page book dedicated to one piece of paper might at first seem like overkill. But this “one single solitary page” might be the most important document you, as a leader, create.
The Big Idea
One Single Solitary Page
"…the method for defining one’s leadership philosophy is common to all leaders but the output of that process is as varied as the shapes of snowflakes."
Mike Figliuolo was a platoon leader in the army early in his career. He says he failed miserably when trying to convey the expectations he had of his soldiers. In hindsight, looking back at this failure, what he was saying to them “was full of jargon and devoid of meaning.” (pg. 10) After some consideration he told his unit to simply, “work hard and be honest.” (pg. 10) That stuck. It was simple and to the point, and explained to his soldiers what he valued as a leader and what he expected of them. Later he would tease out this idea into what has become the book One Piece of Paper. Any leader, no matter what field they’re in, can distill their philosophy onto “one single solitary page” as Figliuolo calls it.
Dictionary.com defines a maxim as a “a principle or rule of conduct,” and in the context Figliuolo uses it, it is a single page outlining the expectations a leader has of their team’s work ethic and behaviours. A regular 8.5 by 11 computer paper is all you need for effective communication of your maxim.
Creating a maxim helps to ensure that you, as a leader, also maintain the standards that you expect of your team. I loved the analogy that Figliuolo uses about banning cookies from your diet. You’re more likely to stick to this incredibly difficult challenge if you tell others about your resolution because you have some accountability. A maxim works the same way. Not only will your team know what you expect of them, but what they can come to expect of you.
"Your first few attempts at writing a maxim will probably be odd, because there is a good chance you are not used to accessing your emotions in a structured and focused way."
Creating a leadership maxim necessitates getting personal with both yourself and your team, allowing them to get to know the real you and what your core values are. As Figliuolo writes, this will work to humanize you in the eyes of your team. To clearly articulate your expectations of your team, you need to use the personal experiences that have shaped you into the leader you are in order to create a maxim that will stick with your team. He suggests keeping in mind the following when it comes to writing your maxim:
- Both positive and negative life experiences
- Favourite song lyrics
- Favourite sayings or quotes
Basically anything that resonates with you is good maxim material. For many, this practice may come as a surprise. Traditionally leaders have been expected to appear stoic, but in today’s modern business world that just won’t cut it. The thought of creating a maxim that is personal might cause feelings of foreboding. That’s to be expected. We’re rarely expected to dig deep within ourselves and be so introspective, and then lay it all out there for others to see. It makes us feel naked, raw and vulnerable. But by doing so, there are so many rewards. You’re creating an atmosphere of trust. Figliuolo cautions that it might take several attempts to create a resonant maxim. Try writing several over the period a few weeks. When you read them back, you will realize that they might sound cold and impersonal, especially compared to your most recent attempts. You’ll see how far you’ve come. Even after you’ve come up with a maxim that you’re proud of, your maxim will continue to evolve as need be. But the hard part is over, and making necessary changes will be easy.
"After days or weeks of effort, we end up with a lengthy manifesto that articulates our leadership philosophy in terms worthy of inclusion in a Ph.D. program syllabus."
Have you ever read a lengthy leadership philosophy document that makes you wish there was a dictionary of corporate culture rhetoric to decipher what’s actually being said? Chances are you have. Figliuolo dedicates an entire chapter to them in One Piece of Paper, which he opens with a fake maxim that is deliberately rife with buzzwords:
“My leadership philosophy is to optimally leverage the passions of my people such that at the end of the day we maximize employee engagement to get them to think outside the box and synergistically drive value-added activities in a profit-maximizing way that is a win-win for our people, our shareholders, and our customers.” (pg 15)
Perhaps they’re obvious to you, but if you’ve become so ingrained in corporate jargon that these words or phrases have become part of your daily rhetoric, I have taken the liberty of highlighting them in bold. These words are called “buzzwords,” and they can be problematic, especially when used in a maxim.
Figluiolo calls this chapter a buzzword palate cleanser. You know, like taking a swig of water to remove the aftertaste before sipping the next wine at a tasting. When you employ these words and phrases, you are allowing the culture that comes along with them to mould your leadership, when it should be the other way around. They’re also emotionless, and make it seem as if you are trying to imitate another leader rather than establishing yourself as one in your own right. Your own personality should not take a backseat to corporate rhetoric, but rather should shape your maxim. But omitting these buzz-words also works twofold by making your maxim more accessible. It makes your position less confusing and removes the need for a translation to regular English. Keep it simple. Keep it real.
Mike Figliuolo’s One Piece of Paper is an invaluable resource for leaders both old and new. Creating your own maxim for the first time, or revising an existing one can be difficult, but Figliuolo holds your hand the entire way, and the questions he asks you to consider throughout the text (and his appendix) makes what can seem like a daunting task easier. With a little work, you can ensure that you and your entire team are all on the same page. (Pun intended.)