Leadership Lessons from Jack London’s Credo

Leaders are, by their nature, confronted with choices. How they see life and how they lead themselves determines, in part, how they approach the act of leading others and the choices they make.

Jack London’s Credo

Shortly before his death in 1916, this credo accredited to Jack London was published.

“I would rather be ashes than dust!

I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.

I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.

The function of man is to live, not to exist.

I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.

I shall use my time.”

Leadership Lessons

For me, there are three significant lessons from this stirring credo.

1. Challenges as opportunities
The first lesson is about how we approach the challenges put in front of us.

Some leaders take an approach of safety first in reacting to challenges, making negative decisions about the risks embedded in challenges. They try to minimise the risk of something going wrong, only ever seeing and acting upon the negative risks, not the positive risks.

For example, a leader faced with the challenge of performance managing a popular underperformer, decides to take a softly, softly approach due to concerns about how people will react to such a popular individual being counselled. Their concern over the negative reaction creates a negative decision not to act. The consequence of this negative decision is that the individual concerned is not given a chance to respond and improve. Those who are performing well are not seen to be treated differently from those who are not. The potential impact is that they drift towards the performance level of the underperformer, relying on popularity to get them by.

Some leaders, on the other hand, determine the risks associated with the challenge and make a positive decision about those risks. They work hard to reduce the probability and mitigate the consequence of the risk, if the risk event occurs. In doing so, they turn challenges into opportunities and uncover further opportunities.

For example, a leader identifies a challenge in the market, to break into a fast growing channel without upsetting the existing branded channel which to date has had exclusive supply. The leader makes a positive decision to create growth opportunities for both channels and communicates relentlessly, ensuring both channels understand the advantages they have been given and gives them the tools to exploit it. The result is growth in both channels and significant market share increase for the company overall.

In a broader sense this is about leaders seeing the glass half -full and continuing to make positive decisions in the face of adversity. It is about wanting to deliver outcomes and achieve goals, rather than accepting a lesser status quo.

In my words it is to “Succeed despite…” not, “Fail because…”. This applies in a leader’s personal life as much as it does in their business life.

2. Setting Goals
Leaders who regularly succeed over long periods of time do so because they set goals for themselves and for their teams. They do not meander through life, waiting for things to happen to them. They set about working out what they want from life at any particular time and work diligently towards achieving that goal. That is not to say that these leaders are the same as dreamers. These leaders do dream, but they also are able to convert their dreams into acts and have the persistence to carry out the acts to reach their goal.

An example I know of directly is a leader who set out to design, develop and implement a loyalty programme in six weeks. A pipedream, some people said. The leader created a project plan with clear delegated authorities for each component of the plan and a small steering committee empowered to make rapid decisions. Steering committee meetings were held frequently to make decisions. The project was given high priority in the steering committee members’ diaries. Their focus was on delivery of the loyalty scheme in the time frame specified.

The criteria for making decisions were clear and included the short time frame and a breakeven position. Longer time frame research was started first and other research and design and development activities were done in parallel as much as possible, with appropriate levels of resources assigned to each component of the plan to ensure that time frames were met.

The end result was a loyalty scheme implemented in six weeks, which resulted in an eight percent increase in market share and a team of people who think that anything is possible.

Setting goals and acting upon them consistently and persistently means that we can achieve many things we, and people who know us, think is not possible. The keys are acting in total congruence with our goal and having only one goal to focus on at a time.

3. Wasting Time
Time management is, to me, a misnomer. If you can really manage time, let me know and I’m sure we can be billionaires. What we can do though, is prioritise our time. We can decide to spend time on things consciously or subconsciously. In either case we are prioritising the use of our time.

If leaders want to achieve a certain goal, then it behoves them to prioritise their time to spend on the actions required to achieve their goal. The actions may well include delegation and follow up, but if the time is not prioritised to tell someone what we are delegating, when they need to complete it and what our expectations are of our (or anyone else’s) involvement, things will not get done.

Leaders who are reactionary and wait for things to change before taking action waste a lot of time. They waste time in that in between reacting to changes from time to time, they do nothing of tangible worth. By not being proactive, they lose the opportunity to shape the future and mitigate the need to react to some issues by eliminating them as they focus on their goal.

Leaders who are clear on their goal and prioritise time and resources to complete the actions required to achieve their goal always seem to have more time to do more things than reactionary leaders.

Living Life to the Jack London Credo

Having a view that we would rather be ashes than dust does not mean that we do not find time to relax and enjoy the company of others. It does not mean that at work, we do not take the time to see what makes people tick and understand the motivators and blockers to achieving their dreams so that we might help them. It does mean we are more likely to offer that help with an insightful question so that they may learn rather than just receive advice. It does not mean that we do not care about others.

It means that we make positive decisions about our life and what we want it to be. It means that we take action to achieve what we want and accept responsibility for the consequences when we get it wrong. It means that we are never a victim and that despite our emotional ups and downs as external and internal factors impact us, we control our life rather than having our life control us.

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