A kite soars in the sky only because its string is held in a firm grip. If we leave the string, the kite will crash down. Principles are like the firm grip on the string. The kite could be yellow, green, turquoise, or crimson, it will still fly. Its colour will make no difference to its flight. Preferences are like the color of the kite.
Principles are vital truths. They are the fundamental base on which something can be constructed. They are “what matters most”. The deeper, more profound “yes” within us. Preferences are multiple ways or alternatives of upholding a principle.
Principles are long-lasting. They stand the test of time. Preferences change faster. Another difference between the two lies in the severity of consequences when they are violated. The consequences of violating a principle are severe. Not just tangible consequences (physical or monetary), but also intangible consequences like emotional distress or wounding our basic identity and self-respect.
There are certain principles of good leadership. A leader needs to understand these, so he can stand up for them. He also needs to be able to differentiate between leadership principles and his preferences as an individual. Unfortunately, many leaders often confuse the two, and mistake one for the other. Let's understand this better with an example.
As a leader, you have asked a team member to complete some work. Completing work within the deadline, and producing work of high quality are principles. Preferences can differ from person to person. So whether the person likes to do the work in the morning, or in the evening is a preference (unless the nature of work requires it to be done at a specific time). There are no severe consequences of choosing an either alternative. But, if the principles of meeting deadlines and high-quality work are violated, then the consequences are severe.
Check and control mechanisms need to be made to prevent violation of principles. They don't have to be structured around preferences. In this example, what are the checks you have in place to ensure that the work will be completed by the deadline and will be of high quality?
2 more examples will further clarify principles and preferences -
- Regular communication with subordinates is a principle of good leadership. Some leaders prefer the face-to-face communication mode, and others prefer the e-mail or phone mode. These modes of communication are preferences. It's possible that they have subordinates with an exactly opposite preference for the mode of communication. A leader can be flexible, and work along with the subordinate to meet halfway in choosing the communication mode. But, what needs to be held sacred is the principle of regular, authentic, and meaningful communication. There need to be check and control mechanisms for upholding this principle. How is the leader ensuring that important issues are discussed thoroughly? How is he ensuring that the communication is open, transparent, constructive etc.?
- Having a development plan for subordinates is a principle of good leadership. Leaders should give feedback and help subordinates improve themselves through a development plan. A subordinate might have communication skills as a development need. He may prefer learning from videos and online courses instead of books. The mode of learning is a preference. Again, the leader can be flexible in letting the subordinate choose his modes of learning. Of course, the leader can make suggestions, but it's okay to let the subordinate decide which learning mode works best for him. Here again, what needs to be held sacred are the principles of commitment to learning, and regular progress reviews. Violating these principles will lead to severe consequences.
Leaders with an inflated ego focus on preferences. They want every single thing done as per their whim and fancy. The fundamental reason behind this is their constant need to prove their superiority over others, which makes them control freaks. Focusing on preferences is what gets leaders into the trap of micromanagement. They don't realize that the energy spent on micromanaging is better spent by focusing on more strategic issues. It also leads to unnecessary conflict, where the battles are over trivial issues. A focus on principles reduces conflict and ensures that the right battles are picked up, which will move the organization forward.
The pandemic has blown the lid off one of the biggest confusions between principles and preferences. Hours spent physically in office were regarded as a principle, whereas the real principle that needs to be upheld is high performance. (Yes, there are jobs that need a physical presence at work. But, physical presence at work is really a hangover of the Industrial Revolution where workers had to physically operate machines. The knowledge worker jobs don't necessarily need a physical presence at work. Some organizations adapted to this change, but many didn't).
Upholding the principle of high performance means that an organization must have a robust performance management process. This includes defining objectives with specific quantity, quality, timelines, regularly reviewing work, and developing employees. Unfortunately, there are leaders who spend their energy counting physical hours spent by their team in the office, instead of focusing on genuine performance management.
How to distinguish between a principle and a preference when you are confused?
Apply the Consequences Test
The most reliable way to distinguish between a principle and a preference is to examine the consequences of violation. If there are severe consequences (physical/ monetary/ emotional / time/ energy/ self-respect and basic dignity), then it's most likely a principle. If the consequences are merely a huge blow to your ego, or the fear of what will people say, or mild discomfort, then it's most likely a preference.
Note the difference – When a principle is violated, it could violate your “self-respect”, but when a preference is violated, it could violate your “ego”. Self-respect is about the Self. It's your relationship with yourself, and your self-worth. The question here is - What will I think of myself if I allow this to happen? Ego is about Others. What do others think about me? How do I fare in comparison to others? The mindset here is I must always be superior to others, whatever be the cost.
Firm with Principles
Leaders need to hold onto principles and defend them if they want the organization to succeed. If a leader is not firm with principles, he will be seen as weak, incapable, and someone who stands for nothing. Holding onto principles ensures that the leader will keep the organization aligned with its core purpose, and steer it towards excellence.
Flexible with Preferences
Being flexible with preferences allows individuality to flourish. Flexible leaders are inclusive and allow people to be themselves. People don't have to constantly worry about offending the boss, and fear is not the dominating emotion in the team. Leaders who are flexible with preferences are not easily agitated or offended. It takes something substantial, like the violation of a principle to get them worried. They respect the individual's choices, as long as certain principles are upheld. When people feel safe, they can use all their energy for work, instead of diverting it to protect themselves. Flexibility in preferences allows for a rich diversity of ideas and perspectives. The work environment is stimulating and vibrant. It allows creativity and innovation to flourish. Flexible leaders receive higher engagement, higher performance, and higher respect.
Self – Reflection exercise
What are your 5-7 most important principles for leading & managing people? (You can have sub-principles under each of them). Are you sure these principles are helping you lead and manage people effectively? It may help to review these principles with literature on good leadership and/or discuss with other leaders who you consider as excellent leaders.
Are you sure your 5-7 choices in the first question are principles? Or are they preferences? Apply the consequences test to ensure that these are indeed leadership principles.
Have you ever confused leadership principles with preferences? What happened? What did you learn? How will you prevent that in the future?