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Maxim motivators: words to lead by

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One Piece of Paper

By Mike Figliuolo

(Jossey-Bass, 238 pages, $33.95)

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"Sometimes you have to fire your friends."

"In God we trust. All others bring data."

"Is this right for the customer?"

"If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."

"Kick up. Kiss down."

"It's easier to correct course 100 yards into the journey than 100 miles into it."

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Those are some of the leadership maxims Mike Figliuolo has developed over the years, first as a U.S. Army combat officer and then as consultant.

They remind him, in tricky situations, of how to act, overcoming obstacles and staying true to his values. Just as importantly, when he shares them with his team and his clients, they know where he is coming from, and can help to hold him accountable.

Do you know what your values are, and the operational practices that should flow from that?

Could you write them down on one sheet of paper, for yourself and others?

If not, Mr. Figliuolo's book One Piece of Paper can be your guide and the coming new year, with its call to resolutions and renewal, an inspiration.

"Without a clear leadership philosophy, taking action is dangerous," he writes. "Yes, you have innate beliefs that guide your actions. I am asking you to make those beliefs explicit."

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When we are steered toward considering values, it's easy to become turgid, using flowery words and concepts, or to fall back on meaningless buzzwords.

Mr. Figliuolo, in pushing for maxims, is steering us to pithy but powerful statements. Often those statements will be memorable because they were first used by a mentor who helped us after we messed up. Or there may be a personal story behind it, which amplifies the meaning.

"He drinks 7 Up," one of Mr. Figliuolo's maxims, is a reminder of the importance of knowing your team members as individuals. When he was a platoon leader, he recalls, he had one "problem child" soldier who would show up for work late, his uniform unkempt, and loaf if not supervised.

During one field exercise on a hot day, Mr. Figliuolo sprang for drinks for his platoon, and made sure this soldier got his favourite, 7 Up. The soldier was shocked his leader cared enough to notice which soda he preferred, and with that tiny bond turned his performance around.

"He drinks 7 Up" may now be a useful maxim for you to borrow, but you also have similar stories that can serve to remind you of how to act as a leader.

Mr. Figliuolo advises you to search for maxims in four aspects of leadership:

Leading yourself: What motivates you and what are your rules of personal conduct? What do you want to look like and stand for in the future?

Leading the thinking: Where are you taking the organization and how will you innovate to drive change? What are your standards of performance for how you will safely get to your destination?

Leading your people: How can you lead them as individuals rather than treating them like faceless cogs in the machine?

Leading a balanced life: How do you define and achieve balance, and also avoid burning out?

He subdivides each of these four areas to help you in the introspection process. For learning to lead yourself, for example, you must ponder five questions: Why did you get out of bed today? How will you shape your future? What guidelines do you live by? When you fall down, how do you pick yourself back up? How do you hold yourself accountable?

In the end, you should have 15 to 25 bullet-point phrases or sentences. Some might be lyrics from songs or poems. Images are also fine.

"You may find that initially using your maxims feels awkward. They may not resonate much for you. If they do not strike you as powerful statements that represent who you are as a leader, it may be because you are trying to fool yourself into being something you are not," Mr. Figliuolo notes.

They should be aspirational – rules you have set out to encourage your best performance.

He suggests reading the single piece of paper on which they are written at the start of every day, to remind yourself of your standards. They will change over time, as you grow, and it might be helpful to review them every time your performance is reviewed.

They should also be shared, to help build stronger relationships. "Sharing your maxims provides those around you with a window into who you are as a person and as a leader," he says.

One Piece of Paper is clearly written, with lots of helpful anecdotes and experiences from the author's career that not only help you understand the process of writing maxims but also provide advice on being a better leader.


In Walter Isaacson's bestselling new biography, Steve Jobs, he describes a retreat in September, 1982, at which the Apple Inc. leader posted some of his maxims on an easel. The first was, "Don't compromise." After mentioning a scheduled completion day for the Mac computer, Mr. Jobs noted, "It would be better to miss than to do the wrong thing." Another maxim was: "The journey is the reward."

When asked whether he thought they should do customer research to gain a better idea of what the customer wanted, Mr. Jobs replied, "No, because the customers don't know what they want until we've shown them."

Another maxim at that retreat: "It's better to be a pirate than to join the navy," an attempt to create a rebellious, swashbuckling spirit in his team, as it fought off doubters elsewhere in the company and outside the company.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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