Always do your best

18th April 2012 | Posted in Books, How to be a Leader

This post is one in a series where I’m going to take each of Sarah Bakewell’s twenty attempts at Montainge’s answer to the question ‘how to live’ and re-interpret them as an answer to the question ‘how to be a leader’. If that baffles you (and if you haven’t read the rest of the series, why wouldn’t it?), you can read my explanation here. You can find earlier posts in the series under the ‘How to be a Leader’ category in the navigation bar to the left.

How to be a leader? A: Do your best

Montaigne enjoyed his time abroad. We know that both from his writing and from the time he was away – nearly 18 months. He may have stayed longer had he not received a summons to return to Bordeaux where he had been elected in his absence to take up the Mayoralty of the town: a big deal and a big job for the time but not one he had sought or welcomed when it arrived. He wrote refusing, almost like Boris Johnson standing down in its unlikeliness, but his refusal was not accepted and the King wrote personally: ‘you will be doing a thing very agreeable to me, and the contrary would greatly displease me’. No getting out of this one, then, but he returned at his own pace, taking nearly two months to get back to Bordeaux and seemed determined when he got there that the job would be done on his terms, no-one else’s.

The previous Mayor had been unpopular and Montaigne was in turnaround mode. True to his sceptical roots, he followed a Pyrrhonian principle in lending his ears to everyone, his mind to no-one and protecting his integrity above all. He found allies rather than friends, worked diligently and intelligently, was praised for his grace under pressure. At a time when political and religious turmoil was the norm he managed a long period of peace and calm and was re-elected after four years – an unlikely event that was testament to his success. Of course, he was not without his critics. ‘Too lax and disengaged’ they said, ‘too blunt, too direct’. ‘Judge me by my results’, was a summary of his reply and about his style he said this:

“I hate to seem a flatterer so I naturally drop into a plain, blunt way of speaking. I honour most those to whom I seem to show the least honour and I pander least to those that I have given myself the most. It seems to me that those close to me should read me best and judge me by my deeds, not my words’.

I was once offered a role I didn’t want. Happy in HR, a weak senior leader with a big problem coerced me into bolting Customer Service onto my already full desk on some entirely specious strategy which looked more like panic to me. Like Montainge, I tried ‘no’ and like Montainge, it didn’t work. In retrospect I should have tested my strength with another ‘no’ but I did the worst thing by demonstrating my reluctance through some initial half-heartedness. There was also some obvious lop-sidedness in my attention to the HR and L&D teams that I’d built to deliver the plans we’d agreed over the service guys that I’d not recruited in a mess that I’d not made. It took me a full quarter of the year to recognise that my position was unsustainable – misery and underperformance in half your working life is dangerously infectious – and adjust my attitude to something closer to my best. Over time and with attention, things got fixed. Over time, I was able to pass a stable service function to someone else. My hard-won conclusion then and now is that your first duty as a leader is to your own performance – no matter how unwelcome the role the business asks of you, delivering performance gives you choices: underperformance gives you none.

So to those that aspire to leadership I say, learn from Montaigne. Lend your ears to everyone and your mind to no-one. Protect your integrity above all and always do your best.

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