Remembering My Four Rules (1999)

In 1999 I made these four rules for myself to live by. One of my Public Safety officers at RISD recalled me talking about them on campus three years ago and asked to be reminded what they were — and I had forgotten them, and couldn’t find them on my old websites at MIT. Here they are, unearthed and a little bit dusty, thanks to the archaeology work of a close friend.

I can’t remember what motivated my putting these down to paper — I recall that it was shortly after I became a professor at MIT and was trying to figure out this “leadership” thing. I still strive to live by these rules every day — failing more than succeeding, but I love to keep trying through doing and I don’t intend to give up.

  1. Don’t speak ill of others. It’s human nature to knock the other party down when they aren’t watching as a natural survival instinct. I always admire the people I meet in life who never feel they have to speak ill of others to make themselves look good.
  2. Avoid passive aggressive behavior. Failing to be forthright with what you really want to say can be hurtful. Being honest and respectful is a good way to deliver a difficult message.
  3. Listen broadly, but don’t waffle on decisions. When people depend upon you to make a decision, they’re basically asking you to be responsible for the possible failed outcome. Your decision should be based upon expert opinions culled from your team, but in the end you make the final decision and are the one responsible — you bear the responsibility for the team. If you’re wrong, admit you’re wrong early and things will usually go better that way. If you’re right then consider yourself lucky and pass on the win to your team. Keep moving forward.
  4. When in error — admit, apologize, move forward. I am not perfect. The only way that I can guarantee not making any mistakes is if I were to do absolutely nothing. So by doing anything at all, I risk making errors of varying degree of intensity. When, and I will, make a mistake I will admit the error as soon as possible, apologize for it, and then move forward without being paralyzed.