First, Break All the Rules: Management Lessons From Mandela

Updated: Sep 23

You’ll find that breaking with conventional wisdom, those leadership practices we’ve heard about for so many years, will help you and your team grow. And then you can find the next set of rules to break – to breakthrough to the next level of performance.


Breaking the rules? Won’t that cause problems? Yes! Yet, leaders routinely break them to achieve extraordinary results.

Everyone knows the terrible price Nelson Mandela paid for breaking the rules. He was an angry young man determined to change the future. But first, he had to learn how to change himself. And now we know how this man of amazing courage helped to create a new society, the modern South African nation, by getting rid of the old rules.

Margaret Thatcher broke with conventional wisdom about who could be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Not only was she the first woman to become PM, she held the PM position longer than anyone else in the 20th Century (including Winston Churchill). She created her own rules for success. She also learned there was a price to pay when you don’t live by the rules of the rich and powerful. But she had the courage and ability to keep moving forward to create a Britain that broke with the past and moved into an unexpected and remarkably successful future.

Your Edge

Nobody reading this is the kind of person that wakes up and says, “what a great day to be a mediocre leader.” “I’ll aim for being in the middle of the pack, and I’ll make it.” You are looking for deep understanding of leadership practices that you can put to work immediately, and here they are – researched for you by the best and brightest in the Gallup organization.

Some of the critical points of the research of more than 2,500 business organizations:

Hire people for their talent rather than experience or IQ. If it is there, you can develop talent; if it isn’t there, you can’t.

A second key is to carefully define expected outcomes.. Focus on the ‘what’ of the job, not the ‘how.’ Employees who fully understand the ‘what’ can be given the freedom to use all of their talent to the fullest.

The third key really breaks with a lot of corporate conventional wisdom: focus on people’s strengths, not fixing their weaknesses. People are extremely difficult to ‘fix.’ You probably don’t have the training or talent to fix them or help them fix themselves. So don’t put much effort into it. Focusing on weaknesses, companies create the doom-loop of eternal self-improvement plans that simply get modified every year.

Deep understanding of talent, motivation, strengths, and job fit are all part of the success equation. But let’s cover just one more of Gallup’s rules to break: leaders should play favorites. This assumes your favorites are the most talented people who are strong players and get results. By spending most of your time with them, you reaffirm their value, encourage them to even greater performance, and you get the benefit of learning from them. If you choose to fix the struggling performers, you’ll spend inordinate amounts of time and get little for your effort other than feeling you’ve done all you can do when it is time to let them go.

Harsh – yes, but real. Better hiring practices, better performance management, spending your most valuable resource – your time – where it pays off the most; these are important ideas for you to incorporate into your leadership.

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