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The #1 Rule for Leadership

You may have walked past an important building and noticed a stone that was a little different than the rest, usually just above ground level where two outside walls come together. Often this stone has a year engraved in it and if you could go back in time you’d probably be able to experience a ceremony, where this stone was placed into the wall of a nearly completed building with a lot of pomp. They call this stone the cornerstone and in today’s time it performs no architectural function beyond the ceremony.

Go back a couple of hundred years and there is no more important stone to masonry foundations than this one. Before a building was started, a special stone was carefully carved out of rock. It has to be the perfect shape, the perfect size with perfect edges. This cornerstone was then laid at the future intersection of two walls as the first stone to the entire structure. It became the foundation for the entire rest of the building. It had to be set just right, otherwise you’d end up with crooked walls or a slanted building.


Your character is similar to this cornerstone. It is the foundation to influence. It is the glue of relationships. If you don’t have character, no matter how gifted, smart or charismatic you are, your leadership will not last and it will come crumbling down due to a weak or missing cornerstone. Gulf War hero General H Norman Schwarzkopf expresses, “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without strategy.”

While there are many elements to character, when it comes to leadership one element trumps the rest. That is, there is one thing that divides the good leaders from the great, one perspective that if taken will help define and direct all the other elements of character. That one thing, the one element that is greater than all the others is the principle of others before self.

Think of it this way...why do people intentionally violate character? Why do they purposely take a chisel and start chipping away at their cornerstone? Why would people lie, cheat, steal? Why would they hid mistakes, shortcoming and weaknesses? At the root of all problems of character is selfishness. People want more money, more power, or more fame. They want to be seen as givers but inside are only takers. They lack self-control and therefore place themselves above others in every single instance of character violation.

People that have character, that tell the truth, that are the same on the inside as on the outside...people that give instead of take, that admit weaknesses, that don’t hide mistakes and that willingly rely upon others for help have at their very core a belief that others matter. Physician and missionary Sir Wilfred T Grenfell said, “The service we render to others is really the rent we pay for our room on this earth. It is obvious that man himself is a traveler; that the purpose of this world is not to have and to hold but to give and to serve. There can be no other meaning.”

Rabbi Harold Kushner said, "the purpose of life is not to win. The purpose of life is to grow and share. When you come to look back on all that you have done in life, you will get more satisfaction from the pleasure you brought to other people's lives than you will from the times that you outdid or defeated them." Norm Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, adds, “The man who lives for himself is a failure; the man who lives for others have achieved true success.”


What the Cornerstone Principle really is, is an attitude adjustment. It is a change of thinking, a change of the mind from always putting yourself first to putting other people first.

This can be easy to read, but it is probably one of the hardest concepts of leadership. For much of our professional working life to this point, we have had to have a me-first attitude. We have had to look out for #1. We have put our sights on where we want to be, what we want to have and how we want to accomplish it. This sort of attitude is not necessarily bad. It is what gives us the motivation to get the education, to apply for the jobs and to climb the ladder. It is what has caused us to move closer and closer to crossing the line. But we are on the other side of the line now and once here, the rules have changed. If your only desire is to move yourself forward, to focus on what you want and where you are then you are in for a very lonely and heart-breaking journey in leadership.

Helen Keller asserts, “Life is exciting business and most exciting when lived for others.” How true is this and the first step towards a exciting life on the other side is having the self discipline to change our thinking habits from being centered upon yourself to focusing on others. You’ve probably heard the old adage:

Your thoughts become your words

Your words become your actions

Your actions become your habits, and

Your habits create your character.

If we are to change and grow our character, we must first start with our thoughts. British author James Allen said it this way, “A man is literally what he things, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts.” The Cornerstone Principle is a change in our thoughts, from me .... to you.

May you become a better leader by applying this Cornerstone Principle!

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