Fresh, Thought-Provoking Insights on How to Lead from Kevin Kruse

I recently read Kevin Kruse’s excellent new book, Great Leaders Have No Rules: Contrarian Leadership Principles to Transform Your Team and Business.

In my interview with Kevin, I ask him about some of his most interesting—and perhaps controversial—leadership principles. Why is an open-door policy actually a bad idea? Do I really want to lead with “love” and “vulnerability”? Should everyone know each other’s salaries? Kevin’s insights are illuminating.

  1. Q: You advocate “closing your open door policy” in favor of more regulated access by employees. What’s your logic for this, and, are there any times when an open door policy could make sense, albeit temporarily?

A: The ubiquitous “open door policy” is intended to facilitate communication and cut through red tape, which is admirable. However, in practice, an always open door policy can lead—in addition to constant interruptions—to dependency among your team members. Some research indicates about half of team members basically “reverse delegate” decisions and problem solving back on their managers, while the other half never uses the open door at all. Instead of putting the impetus of open communication on team members, it’s better to have a consistent cadence of one-on-ones and team huddles, and then scheduled office hours for limited pop-in meetings.

  1. Q: In the title of your book is the phrase “No Rules”—“Great Leaders Have No Rules.” Say more about that. What about some rules that are important personal boundaries, e.g., “I don’t work on the Sabbath”?

A: Every time I bump into a rule, it takes away the opportunity for me to make a choice. And when you do that, it becomes your company, not my company. I become a little less engaged—I feel less ownership. Better than rules, are standards which are co-created by the team. Even a rule like “don’t lie”, or “don’t steal the office supplies”, will be far more effective and engaging if there is a conversation around values like integrity and honesty. Do we think those are values worth having? Why? What does living out those values in this organization look like?

I think personal “rules” can be powerful and beneficial, but instead of thinking of them as a rule they may be more powerful as a thoughtful choice. If I consider not working on the Sabbath a “rule”—perhaps told to me by my parents or Rabbi—I may have mixed feelings about it, or I may have never truly paused to consider it. But if you have a conversation (even with yourself) about values like honoring God, rest and recovery, investing time into a strong family, then you may be far more likely to want to observe the Sabbath.

  1. Q: You say a leader should be likable, but not liked. What’s the risk in being liked?

A: The problem isn’t actually being liked, it’s more about the need to be liked by everyone. When I was young I wanted to be a democratic boss, just another team member, and everyone’s friend. The reality is that I was being a people-pleaser. I had an external need to be liked, which ended up slowing down my decision making. I’m not suggesting you wall off your heart or act like a jerk. The idea is to be likable, but be unattached to whether your team actually likes you or not.

  1. Q: You talk about leading with love, and other authors have also focused on the power of love. But it sounds scary to me—is this feasible for people who are more reserved about their emotions?

A: As a very stoic task-focused “driver”, leading with love sounds scary to me too! But it’s really more about leadership coming from a place of caring about your people, not just quarterly profits. It’s about a love of humankind. Ultimately, I don’t think anybody wants to be eulogized with, “Well, he never made a difference in anyone’s life, but at least he never missed in earnings estimate!” You can demonstrate your love in the little things. Do you actually say good morning to people each day? Do you look people in the eye and smile as you pass them in the hallway? Are you compassionate and understanding during people’s tough family times? If you have to let someone go, do you help them to find their next job?

  1. Q: I like your concept of “Revealing Everything.” Are there any limits to this type of radical transparency? Could it incite conflict to reveal peoples’ salaries?

A: The benefits of radical transparency far outweigh the risks, and if salary could disclosure could incite conflict in your organization, it says more about your compensation methodology than transparency. There is already salary transparency among millions of public servants who work in government or the military or public education systems. Everybody knows exactly what everyone else makes in those organizations. And the reality is that today, anybody can Google their job title, city, and “average pay” and come up with numerous websites that give accurate data. And, even if you have a policy against talking about compensation, younger generations talk about it all the time. They rightly view it as a fairness issue. So I think the bigger issue is, even if you don’t want to proactively publish individual salaries, would you be comfortable if the data got out. If not, why not?

  1. Q: You recommend showing weakness. It’s known that vulnerability builds trust (and likability!). I’ve coached many senior women executives, and I’ve had pushback on this advice from some of them because in our culture, they tell me, a woman—compared to a man—can in fact be penalized or downgraded for showing vulnerability. Any advice here?

A: Yes, women and men today are unfortunately judged by different standards. I don’t have a good answer on this although I remember advice Brené Brown has given on occasion which is that we can share our vulnerability with those who have earned it. We might not be very vulnerable with the new colleague who started this week, but be very vulnerable with the partner in our firm who we’ve worked with for years.

  1. Q: Many younger professionals (e.g., Millennials) tell me that they wish they had more influence in their organizations. They feel that older Baby Boomers (like me!) are slow to recognize their ideas and contributions. How can they achieve more influence as leaders?

A: I think this issue is highly contextual. I’d bet that most organizations have tenured middle managers who are out of touch, risk adverse, and poor communicators, and the “OK, Boomer” refrain is well deserved. And I know there are many organizations, and many teams, where the younger generations are truly impatient and don’t know what they don’t know. My best advice is to make sure there are specific growth practices in place. Are weekly one-on-ones held so that people’s ideas and concerns are heard? Are there growth opportunities like mentorships, shadowing, and special assignments? Are managers and team members having “stay interviews” every six months to review career expectations? Having frequent candid career conversations can be very helpful when managing multiple generations.

  1. Q: The eternal struggle for any leader is balancing the short-term demands of their work—the need to get immediate results for their organization—with the long-term investments they need to make to build the future. How do the best leaders do this?

A: Indeed, I think this is the ultimate struggle of leadership today. I think the best leaders find ways to integrate their effective people-leadership practices into the normal flow of work. Great leaders will start each team meeting by thanking someone who deserves it, because they know recognition drives engagement. Great leaders will give effective feedback—positive and constructive—immediately when they see something, knowing that team members value coaching and want to grow. Great leaders share their authentic best selves, and take an interest in team members as individuals, knowing that authenticity and caring are major drivers of trust. Ultimately, great leadership can indeed be practiced in the minutes and moments throughout the day.

Great Leaders Have No Rules: Contrarian Leadership Principles to Transform Your Team and Business by Kevin Kruse (Rodale Books, April 2, 2019)

Back to top