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The Proteus Leader Show #36: Throwing Away the Leadership Rules

Best-selling author and CEO Kevin Kruse joins Erika to share useful and surprising leadership tips from his new book Great Leaders Have No Rules available in April.

00:00-01:28 - Introduction

01:29-04:07 - Leadership as a Superpower, and Influence

04:08-11:42 - Examples of Harmful Leadership Mistruths; Rules vs Conversation & Agreements

11:43-15:00 - Practical Tips & Non-conventional Wisdom

15:01-16:07 - Closing

Intro: 00:01 You're listening to the Proteus Leader Show with Erika Andersen, where you'll get practical tools and insights for leading, managing and staying ready for the future. Erika is the founding partner of Proteus, a firm that focuses uniquely on leader readiness. A nationally known executive coach and bestselling author, you may already know her as one of the most popular leadership bloggers on Ready for something you can use today? Here's Erika.

Erika: 00:30 Hello everyone and welcome back to the Proteus Leader Show. My guest today is Kevin Kruse, who I'm thrilled to welcome back to the show. Kevin's mission is to convince everyone that whole hearted leadership for employee engagement is the key to unlocking both dramatic business results and better health and relationships. Based on his own experience as the CEO of multiple successful tech companies and global survey results from millions of respondents, Kevin Focuses his work as a consultant, speaker and bestselling author on the power of growth, recognition and trust as key drivers of high performing teams. So welcome back Kevin.

Kevin: 01:12 Erika, great to be back!

Erika: 01:14 Yes, it's always fun to talk to you. So I'm very excited about your new book, which is called Great Leaders Have No Rules, and based on my pre-read of it I thought it'd be really thought-provoking and fascinating for our listeners. So let's dig into this.

Kevin: 01:28 All right.

Erika: 01:29 So one of the things you focus on in your new book is your belief that leadership is a superpower. Can you expand on that?

Kevin: 01:37 Yeah, absolutely. I think leadership is a superpower that we all can develop in all areas of our life. So for myself, I'm a serial entrepreneur, my early companies in my twenties crashed and burned because I didn't know - leadership wasn't on my mind. I thought about sales and I thought about design. I wasn't thinking about leadership. And it was only when I recognize that it really is all about people and the team and the talent and leading them and engagement then my companies did, you know, better and better. And I think that, but if you boil leadership down to a single word, and I've asked, I've asked John Maxwell, I've asked Ken Blanchard, I've asked a lot of people, they always say influence. And so if you equate leadership with influence and realize, I mean if you had the superpower of self leadership influencing yourself, whether it's to put down the junk food and, or to, you know, get on the treadmill, you will change your life. You know, if you can influence in a positive direction, your teenagers or your relationship with your spouse, you will transform your family. And then of course, traditionally people think about work and I would just extend it and say it's a super power because it's not just about that authority thing. I mean we influence everyone around us whether we want to or not, right? I mean emotions are contagious. What we do is contagious. And so leadership is really this massive force that we can all activate in all areas of our life.

Erika: 03:11 That makes so much sense to me and I love the framing of it from the kind of inside out. Can you influence yourself, the people closest to you, then the people who work in your organization? And it really winds up with something that we've talked about for years. We and Proteus, which is that there are appointed leaders and then there are accepted leaders. It seems like accepted leaders of the people who influence in a positive direction. I love that idea of influence.

Kevin: 03:38 And I'm jotting a note down Erika about this appointed and accepted because I like that phrase, like the way you put that.

Erika: 03:45 Right? You can really see it. Like sometimes there are leaders that like, yeah, I'm working for this guy. You know, he's okay, she's okay, I'm not... Okay, it's fine. And then there are other people, like this person is really, as you say, having a dramatic positive impact on my life and on the organization and I'm completely signed up.

Kevin: 04:04 It's a huge difference and it has nothing to do with the authority of the person.

Erika: 04:08 Yeah, exactly. It's a kind of personal, moral authority. Like, you have credibility with me to influence me in a direction. That's very cool. So you also say something that I love and it's kind of dramatic, which is that almost everything we've been taught about leadership is wrong. So what are some of the most harmful examples of that?

Kevin: 04:30 Well, yeah, literally in the book, every chapter is a different thing and it's because I was once told, you know, to, to distance myself from my team members, you know, God forbid I have to fire someone or reprimand them. Well that's wrong. I mean, and I have a chapter called lead with love. I mean, it's actually about getting, you know, closer to your people. The conventional wisdom of - you shouldn't play favorites. Well, you should play favorites. Not favoritism, you should play favorites and individualize your approach. But, my favorite chapter, it's where the book's title came from, you know, have no rules - it came from something that happened to me 20 years ago, which was, I just sold my company and was joining the new company that had bought mine as a VP reporting to CEO.

Kevin: 05:21 And he gave me the big speech, Erika, about like, it's going to be, you know, we're just partners. We all have equal votes. We'll build this company together. And 30 days in, I get my expense check and I open it up and it's short by like $4, which is not a lot of money, but I thought OK I filled out the form wrong. So I asked the CFO like, what's up with this? And he says, oh, he says, we deducted your post-it notes. You're not allowed to buy post-it notes here. So this I bumped into my first rule, now, wasn't one they had explained or told me about ahead of time. A buddy down the hall found out he was traveling and he tried to expense one beer that he had with dinner. They don't reimburse for alcohol. He could've bought a milkshake for $3 and it would have been fine, but the beer was not. And what happens is every time now, look, most companies have rules and policies. Most companies have a lot of them. And unless, you know, if it's for a legal reason or a safety reason, like I get that. But otherwise, every time we bump into a rule, it takes away the opportunity to make a choice. So we don't feel as much ownership for our work or our department or our team. It becomes your company, not my company. And so instead of rules, I mean, rules replace conversation, we should have more conversation. Rules are black and white, we should have guard rails. Who knows where they came from. Instead, we should be going back to values. And a funny thing about the post-it notes is I went and challenged my boss, the CEO on this thing and he immediately said, Kevin, I had no idea people were upset about this, fine the rule's gone. Everybody can reimburse for post-it notes. But he said, let me explain. He says, I don't care about post-t notes. It was a symbol and he explained that one of the official values of the company was growth and profit. And you don't normally see the word profit in values, but you had a whole speech around, you know, breathing is not the purpose of life, but you need to breathe to pursue your purpose. And so one of the values was profit and he explained that he would walk around the office and see everyone with these post-it notes. They'd be doodling on them, they'd be writing phone messages on them. And what he did, he showed me as he took his printer scrap paper, he tore them into squares so that he had this little pile of ripped up paper on his desk that he used for scrap paper and notes. And he said it was just a symbol of frugality. Now, even though he overturned that rule, Erika, I stayed there five years longer than my earn out and noncompete and all that. And I never once bought post-it notes again because all of a sudden we had a conversation that brought us closer together and that connected us. Uh, we had a conversation about values and how we can express and lead, and show everybody that we are leading the values. Um, there was a whole different conversation around it. And so, you know, I realized then like, okay, rules disengaged 97% to try to control the risk with the 3% of knuckleheads that, you know, sneak into the company.

Erika: 08:28 Well and they also, they - I love that story - rules can unfortunately send people in the wrong direction. And I'll even use you as an example. I mean not buying post-it notes okay, so you've got your hand slapped when we ever did it. But I, but I suspect that the conversation was much more valuable to you because it made you think about how can I behave in such a way to drive growth and profit in the organization. I bet you any amount of money that most people who, you know didn't buy post-it notes, that's the reason they weren't buying post-it notes is because it was against the rules. It had nothing to do with whether or not it was driving growth and profit for the organization.

Kevin: 09:12 Yeah, that's exactly right. You said it better than I did. A rule tends to control behavior behavior.

Erika: 09:19 Exactly.

Kevin: 09:20 The values and what it really should be about is the goals, right? What are we trying to achieve? Yeah, I know it gets harder in larger organizations, but like in my companies, you know, we've never had a dress code. We've never had a vacation policy, we've never had an expense policy. Gary on my team was going off to a conference in San Francisco two weeks ago and he's like, um, I've never traveled here before. Like, what's the daily limit on, you know, food and all that. And I said, Gary, I said, spend the money as if it was your own. I said, you know, we're all aligned on the mission here. We all know that, that every dollar counts. And we also know San Francisco is an expensive city. So I trust you. You know, you make the call and even if you can't have no rules the way I do like that, you could still have sort of like, the goal is an average daily budget of $100 a day, whatever it is. And instead of a rule, it's sort of like the guidelines, the standards.

Kevin: 10:19 Yes. Yes, yes. I love what you said before about guardrails. I use that phrase a lot. So if you have clear goals and then good guard rails, then what that implies to people is that you're trusting them. You're a smart person. Here's the goal. Here are the guidelines. Go for it. Versus here the 15 rules that you have to follow in a situation...

Kevin: 11:05 Yeah, that's right. And, and I know we've got a, you know, a limited time on the 'cast, but Erika, like I'm not a big, I don't usually do a lot of big sports analogies and stuff, but the, the legendary basketball coach, they call him Coach K from Duke, you know, he had a thing where every, so at in college basketball, you know, every year he's got new players and he would say, look, you know, the rules - if you have all these rules then you're not a leader. You become like an administrator of the rule, which is not what you want to be. And so he would have his players make their own rules without him and he would, you know, he calls them standards. What do you guys want to hold each other accountable to not what is, what are my rules or Duke's rules you have to follow. And so became, you know, organic from the team. And you know, we were talking about facilitation before we started recording and I know that's a good facilitation trick. It's not hey you will be back on time and there's no cell phone use. It's what, how to collectively do we want this data look and what are the guidelines and it's a whole different conversation.

Erika: 11:43 Yes! And how do we, I always do that when I start off a group like how do you want to behave together today in order to get the outcomes that you guys want to get? So it's exactly what we're saying. Like, okay, we have goals, how are we going to operate to achieve those goals? Could not agree with you more. So then I always tell listeners that we're going to have some practical tips from podcast guests. So what are a couple of things you recommend that are both useful and perhaps counterintuitive?

Kevin: 12:43 Well, so I'll give a couple of real quick ones. So you know, I have a chapter called Close Your Open-Door Policy. Conventional wisdom is you always have that open door policy. Well, very simple. I say close your open door and open your calendar. Think about office hours instead of an open door. So just schedule your office hours. The second one, turn off your smartphone. Thankfully many of us are now talking about the distractions and dangers of too much smart phones. Turn it off, stick it in your desk drawer or leave it in your purse, whatever it is. Um, and you know, process it. Check it when you want to, not when it buzzes or other people want you to. And then back to rules. Just because I'm so passionate about it. Even if you can't abolish rules, maybe in your organization have a conversation about it, you know, in the next team meeting, hey, what are the rules around here that really get in your way of success? They're the ones that bother you. And I would encourage, cause I always say, let's start back with ourselves at home, you know, I don't believe that teens should have curfews. And that's a little crazy. You know, no rules at home, but have a conversation with your kids. Even if you're like, no way, I need these curfews. Make sure you have that conversation. Like why do you think the curfew is in place? What do you think about the time? You know, what do you think about this? All of a sudden just having a conversation about it, will open up and change the way people feel about things.

Erika: 13:38 Oh man, I completely agree. I mean, so much of the theme of what you're saying and even the purpose of turning off your smartphone and closing your door and opening your calendar is to have better conversations. You know, and I completely agree with you. If you have good conversations with people around how do we behave in order to achieve these goals that are critical to us. You know, I'm with you. My, my kids had rather than hard curfews, they had timelines that we set together. And so because to your point, because they were involved in the setting of them and they were much more likely to buy into them.

Kevin: 14:15 Yeah. What did I tell people that like I've never had, you know, rules are curfews with my kid. They seem to think that that means I don't care that they were just, they could do whatever. But it's, it would be a, you know, a Saturday night and they'd say, Hey dad, we're going to this, you know, important high school party. How late can we stay out? And then I will say, well, you know, I love you so much that I'm not going to fall asleep till you get home because I'll be worrying. And your brother's got an early basketball game I've got to get him to.

Erika: 14:46 Yes, yes, yes!

Kevin: 14:46 Now let's talk about it. And Erika, I don't know about your kids, but usually like they would say something like, really they're really nervous to say there'll be like 11:00 PM and I'm thinking whew I thought they were going to stay out till midnight! They always pick something that's like better than what I would have let them do.

Erika: 15:01 Yeah, exactly. Oh, that's great. Oh, thank you so much, Kevin. I always so much enjoy talking with you and feel like we could just keep talking, talking, but we always promise to keep this short. So listeners, if you're interested in reading, Great Leaders Have No Rules, it will be available online and in stores in April, right? Soon.

Kevin: 15:20 Yeah, April 2nd launch. Absolutely.

Erika: 15:22 That's exciting. And you can find out more about Kevin and his work on his website at and to find out more about how we support leaders to find their superpowers here at Proteus, just go to and click on Accepted Leader. So thank you for listening. Thank you so much, Kevin.

Kevin: 15:41 Oh, thanks for having me back on. It's been fun as always.

Erika: 15:44 Yes. And until next time, here's to creating the life you truly want.

Outro: 15:51 We hope you're feeling better equipped to create the career, the business and the life you want. For more insights and tools for leadership and management, join us Have an excellent day and thanks for listening.