John Taylor, the third president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (known as the Mormons), reminisced about his associate Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church:
“Some years ago, in Nauvoo [Illinois], a gentleman in my hearing, a member of the Legislature, asked Joseph Smith how it was that he was enabled to govern so many people, and to preserve such perfect order; remarking at the same time that it was impossible for them to do it anywhere else. Mr. Smith remarked that it was very easy to do that. ‘How?’ responded the gentleman; ‘to us it is very difficult.’ Mr. Smith replied, ‘I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.’ ” (“Chapter 24: Leading in the Lord’s Way,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, , 281–91.)
Isn’t that answer impressive? “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”
To me, it seems that Joseph Smith has bridged the gap between two leadership styles. One is the autocratic “toxic boss” approach, where the leader both leads, manages, and ultimately micromanages those under his watch.
I think we have all dealt with this kind. Essentially, their approach to leadership is that they give you a “to-do list” and then hover over you waiting for that one false step. Then you get chewed out for making that one little mistake.
The other approach to leadership is akin to an absentee landlord. It is a bit hard to describe this type of boss, since they really don’t do anything. They have an open door policy, but they are never in the office. When you do see them, the conversations are so superficial, it is almost pointless to have them, except to say, “Long time, no see.” The fundamental mistake with this approach is that it confuses delegation with dereliction.
TEACHING CORRECT PRINCIPLES
Joseph Smith’s approach is a third way, completely separate from the other two. The first half of the formula is “I teach them correct principles.” Now, there is a hidden premise to this: the leader must first know correct principles. This involves life-long learning, be it by formal enrollment in classes and seminars, or informal erudition.
Then, once the leader has mastered these principles (both in theory and in practice), the leader needs to teach them to those in the organization. This, of course, brings up subject of time-wasting meetings. At your next staff or in-service meeting, see how many times your boss discusses correct principles.
If your workplace is anything like the company depicted in the Dilbert comics, they you quickly realize that this teaching does not go on as it should. This explains why things don’t go so well, but it also suggests the solution. The answer is simply a return to fundamental truths.
Truth is easy to master. Shakespeare spoke of “simple truth miscall’d simplicity” (Sonnet 66) and my experience confirms this.
Right now I am reading Albert Einstein’s book on relativity. Instead of an alphabet soup of equations resembling an explosion at a printing shop, Einstein explains his special and general theories of relativity with trains, lighting strikes, and with other commonplace things. He creates vivid word-pictures that anyone can understand.
Indeed, his approach reminds me of Jesus Christ’s use of parables. If we understand planting seeds, casting nets, and finding buried treasure, then we can understand how the gospel works. Or general relativity, for that matter.
Along these lines C. S. Lewis, a Christian philosopher, wrote:
“There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.”
“The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator.”
“The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.” (On Reading Old Books)
Understanding correct principles is within the grasp of everyone.
To begin, the leader must be proactive in understand correct principles and simple truths, and then consistently—and sometimes persistently—teach them. The second part of the equation is “and they govern themselves.” This is where the concepts of empowerment, stewardship, and accountability come in. We think that these ideas are cutting-edge approaches to business administration and organizational behavior, but Joseph Smith pioneered these in the 1840s
This part allows people to shine. Once taught correct principles, the individual can act upon these principles in the specific situations and aspects of their job. Empowerment leads to synergy, which, as Stephen R. Covey explained, is when the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts (Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, 262-263).
Covey also observed:
“The difference between people who exercise initiative and those who don’t is literally the difference between night and day. I’m not talking about a 25 to 50 percent difference in effectiveness; I’m talking about a 5000-plus percent difference, particularly if they are smart, aware, and sensitive to others.” (ibid, 76)
BOY SCOUT ANALOGY
We see this leadership model in the Boy Scout merit badge program. The scout has the requirements for the ranks, which serve as a guide and a measure of the progress. Additionally, the scout must earn 21 merit badges for the Eagle Scout rank. Some of these merit badges are required, such as first aid and personal finance, but other merit badges are optional.
These optional merit badges allow for personal initiative. For example, some of the merit badges that interested me were astronomy, space exploration, and atomic energy. My brother got the rifle and shotgun merit badge, and the computer merit badge. These just reflect personal taste. Moreover, each merit badge is also a door to a possible career—my brother is now a software engineer—or they can become a new hobby, as astronomy is for me.
But the point is that with the merit badges, we have the correct principles outlined by the rules and bylaws of the Boy Scout program. But then we are allowed to govern ourselves in selecting our own path to the Eagle Scout award. Truth and empowerment, again.
Joseph Smith’s approach to leadership brings out the strengths of both the leader and the team. It is the ultimate in empowerment and synergy, which explains why The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can function with so many members—13 million members and growing strong.