The power of principles in leadership

With the world hooked on the latest series of Yellowstone – it’s worth reflecting on what it is about this show that people find so compelling. Beneath the surface of the drama, is a meditation on the power of holding onto a core set of values, no matter how much society changes around us.

This is as good a lesson for business as it is a premise for a TV show.

The 21st century so far has been defined by rapid economic, technological, and social change and it’s as easy for businesses, as it is for individuals, to get swept along with these trends. Is this always the wise thing to do however? Yellowstone would show that, as the world changes around us, there is value in sticking to a firm set of principles and allowing them to guide your business and your behaviour.

Joining the debate

One of the major changes to have impacted businesses and individuals in recent years has been the ascent of social media. This has proven to be an incredible new means of marketing and brand building. When engaging with social media however, many companies have lost sight of their purpose and principles, and been drawn into debates on politics, policy and more.

While it’s tempting to have an opinion on the latest debate to grip the nation, the question is, are your customers really interested in your opinion on a given debate, or would they rather you stick to your core business? The key thing to remember in any debate is that you are likely to split your audience. While some may agree with whatever stance you’ve chosen to take, others will necessarily take the opposite stance and may choose to avoid doing business with you in the future as a result.

Social media moves quickly and missteps are easy and there are numerous examples of social media engagement going horribly wrong. So, when engaging with social media, ensure you do so from a foundation of solid principles.

Principles for success

New ideas come along all the time (and will likely continue to do so), but firms must remain conscious of their guiding principles. They should only change them if the evidence for doing so becomes overwhelming.

The idea that principles are the path to success isn’t just a theoretical one. Many of the world’s top investment firms follow the same principles year after year. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, for instance, is famous sticking firmly to a set of principles centred on buying companies with good balance sheets, low debt, and compelling consumer products. Likewise, Ray Dalio’s Bridgewater Associates follows his guiding principles, a set of core tenets he believes determines success in the market. Beyond investing too, the Harvard Business Review has identified four key principles which are applicable to any business – one of which, tellingly, is ‘be conservative about change’.

As you explore top companies more deeply, you discover that core or guiding tenets are indispensable.

But why? There are several reasons.

First, guiding principles help to establish expectations. When a company has certain values, it informs the actions that staff take. A firm with well-established principles provides workers with guidance on what they should do in most (if not every situation), whereas a company without any values cannot.

Second, when a firm has values, it has a stronger mission. The goal of the firm isn’t just to earn as much profit as possible. Instead, it is to serve in some manner that is larger than itself.

Principles also foster better management. Business leadership is subject to high churn with people moving in and out of positions all the time. Principles help to keep companies focused on their core objectives and conduct over long stretches of time, without relying on the integrity of long-serving individuals.

Ultimately, principles permit brand consistency. Companies that use them can maintain their public faces with confidence, even if the world changes beyond recognition. In a sense, it’s a form of marketing – one that breeds both confidence and familiarity.