Leadership rule #1: Your decisions affect other people’s lives 

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This is the first article in a 10-part series on what it means to lead effectively in the 21st century. Read the whole series here.

I had a conversation recently with a very kind, clearly intelligent woman who was about to be promoted into her first management role. She asked me if I had any lessons to share from my own experiences leading a team. I immediately shared two things:

  1. Get a good leadership coach. No, seriously, get one. Ideally, get one before you become a manager. I waited longer than I should have to get a coach, to the detriment of my team and my ability to lead.
  2. It will be harder than you think, and more rewarding than you think. Make sure you want it.

I stand by these learnings, but now that I’ve had time to think about it, I’d like to add a third: Never forget that your decisions affect the lives of human beings.

Your company hired you as a manager to coax as much productivity and profit out of your team as possible, so that the company’s investors and shareholders can make as much money as possible. They’ll probably dress it up with words like “engagement” and “team goals” and “value” and might even offer you some nominal stock options, too, but this is the truth. Most of the time, employees produce most of a company’s financial value, and most of that value accrues to other people — primarily investors and shareholders. Whether you think that’s good, bad, or neutral, it is a fundamental part of the system we live in, and it profoundly affects the way your company is run and, therefore, the way you and your team do your jobs.

So as you find yourself mired in spreadsheets and meetings and quarterly goals and phrases like “key metrics” and “reducing headcount” in your new role as manager, I urge you to remember this:

Every decision you make literally affects people’s lives.

You will have to hire people. You will probably have to fire people (and please don’t interpret this post as an argument against firing — firing is both good and necessary on many, many occasions). Far more frequently, you will have to make decisions about hours and projects and bonuses and team dynamics that will profoundly affect the well-being of the people who report to you in ways you cannot begin to fathom.

When faced with these kinds of decisions, your company leaders want you to ask questions like, “Is this good for the business?” “Will this help us meet our goals?” “Is this the most important thing for us to be working on?”

These are important questions, and they will help you and your team be successful.

But there are other questions that I implore you to ask yourself, because your company probably won’t encourage you to ask them:

  • “How will this affect the people who report to me?”
  • “How does this strengthen or undermine their well-being?”
  • “If this does negatively affect my team, how can I continue to treat them with dignity and respect?”
  • “Is this the right thing to do?”
  • “Is this the humane thing to do?”

Those last two are especially important because sometimes, the thing they tell you to do in business ethics class is entirely the wrong thing to do when you’re actually in the trenches. Sometimes, it is even inhumane.

People are not line-items. They are not “headcount.” They are not “resources” or “budget” or “capital” or any of the other terms business people have created to dehumanize them. They are people with hopes and dreams and fears and bills and rich, separate lives that have absolutely nothing to do with the work they show up to do every day.

Respect that. Honor that. Don’t ever, ever forget it.