5. Leadership and Vision

vision-roosevelt_churchill_1941_600Vision is the fifth attribute common to superior leaders.  Usually, the word “vision” in leadership brings to mind lofty, high level ideals – a long term strategic objective.  But leaders with vision do more than align staff members with a company’s mission or rally the public around a common cause.

In a broader sense, visionary leaders focus on everyday objectives, not obstacles.  They are optimistic and enthusiastic and inspire people.  People naturally follow leaders who arouse their hopes just as surely as they reject anyone who is perpetually pessimistic.  Have you ever known an effective leader who was lazy or constantly negative?

That’s not to say that visionary leaders are Pollyannas.  Leaders cannot simply pretend that setbacks don’t occur or that challenges don’t exist.  The reality of a given situation may very well present real and significant problems to be addressed.  They have to be honest and forthright to stay credible.  But rather than allowing the focus of the group to become fixed on the difficulties, they engage the team in developing productive and meaningful solutions.

Visionary leaders are passionate and purposeful about the work that they do and the objectives they seek.  Indifference is contagious and erodes the credibility and effectiveness of a manager, so leaders demonstrating strength of vision must have the courage to challenge those around them, subordinates and superiors.  In this context, “challenge” means that visionary leaders question the validity of assumptions or reasoning of others, not to be obnoxious, but to better understand and facilitate meaningful two way communication and feedback.  It’s a fine line to be sure, but if leaders are afraid to speak up, the flow of communication becomes so filtered that it is rendered meaningless, or worse, actually opposite of what was originally intended.

There’s a great book by George Washington University Professor, Jerry Harvey, called “The Abilene Paradox.”  In it, Harvey illustrates the paradox in which a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is actually counter to the preferences of each individual in the group, simply because no one wants to speak up and be the squeaky dissenting wheel.  So, a family takes a 53 mile trip to Abilene, Texas for dinner on a hot Sunday afternoon because each of them believes the others all want to go.  In reality, none of them want to make the trip but they all go along, wasting a Sunday afternoon collectively doing something that none of them wanted to do, because no one had the courage to challenge the assumption.

Just as visionary leaders must be willing to challenge those around them, so must they be willing to be challenged.  Too often we solicit the opinion of others thinking we want information, when we really just want confirmation.  That kind of confirmation feels good, but it doesn’t mean very much.  It’s like telling the Emperor that his new suit looks fantastic instead of pointing out that he’s walking around naked (Please tell me someone remembers that Hans Christian Anderson fable).  And guess what happens when the information we receive doesn’t quite align with the confirmation we were looking for?  That’s right.  The Emperor is not happy… until he finally realizes that someone had the courage to be honest with him and act in his best interest.

I think it’s natural to prefer a response that validates rather than contradicts, but there is tremendous value in constructive feedback.  Visionary leaders check their ego at the door, slice themselves a big piece of humble pie, and rely on others who they trust to be honest and provide intelligent insight.  Their purpose is to make everyone around them better, but they also reap what they sow.  Engaging others in an objective focused process makes them stronger, more effective, and more motivated.  And that’s the whole idea.

Advertisements

4. Leadership and Courage

courage-iwo1Winston Churchill said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”  This quote from one of the 20th century’s greatest leaders holds a wealth of wisdom in its simplicity.  No one would argue that it often requires courage to take action.  It’s easy in times of conflict to sit back and let others do the dirty work.  But it also takes courage at times to not act immediately, especially when confronted with adversity.  Knowing when to intervene and when to let events run their course comes with experience and confidence.  Courageous leaders calmly assess the situation and explore alternatives, even as others respond emotionally, demanding swift action.  This measured response to adversity requires discipline and the courage to be steadfast.

Courageous leaders take the initiative and act in the best interest of others, regardless of their own position or level of authority.  They don’t wait to be told, or (necessarily) wait to ask permission.  I once worked for someone who taught me that when confronted with a crisis, it’s better to act and be wrong than just sit back and do nothing.  I believe that to be generally true, but it’s also important to note that, sometimes, acting in the best interest of others means allowing them to fail so that they might learn from the experience.  Courageous leaders make decisions that serve the greatest long term good, even at the expense of short term personal gain.

While courageous leaders must always be thoughtful and purposeful, they should also demonstrate personal ownership of the problem and responsibility for its resolution.  People will not follow a leader who evades responsibility.  Character is tested under fire and leaders do not abdicate their role when challenged.  Courageous leaders are steadfast and firm, demonstrating authority and setting a personal example, empowering others through personal action and integrity.  Military history cites endless examples of battlefield leaders who rallied their troops by personally leading the charge or putting themselves in harm’s way to save the lives of others.

On January 26, 1945, just weeks after receiving a battlefield promotion from staff sergeant to second lieutenant, Audie Murphy found himself a company commander in Holtzwihr, France.  With temperatures in the teens and 24 inches of snow on the ground, Murphy’s unit was down to 19 of its original 128 men.  Facing a German tank attack, Murphy ordered his men to retreat and then stood alone and wounded atop a burning half-track, manning a machine gun and directing artillery fire into the enemy position 100 feet in front of him.  Asked by the artillery officer how close the Germans were to him, Murphy snapped back, “Hold the phone and I’ll let you talk to one.”  The artillery fire and subsequent counter attack led by Murphy successfully repelled the Germans and Audie was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage under fire.

Murphy’s example is uncommon, but what is important to remember is that his actions were not motivated out of a desire for personal advancement or notoriety.  He was just 19 years old on that January 26, having lied about his age and enlisted in the Amy at age 16.  He didn’t set out to become a leader or a hero; he simply wanted to serve his country.  Prior to his promotion to lieutenant, Audie had already earned a Distinguished Service Cross and two Silver Stars as an enlisted man.  In his later years he summed up his perspective on leadership succinctly, “Lead from the front.”

Military heroics such as this are easy examples.  However, courage is much more than performing brave deeds.  Courage manifests itself in many forms and in small, everyday ways.  Sometimes it’s demonstrated on the field of battle for the entire world to see.  But other times it’s demonstrated in the boardroom or conference room, before colleagues and superiors.  Sometimes courage is tested in the face of overwhelming peer pressure, and sometimes it is quietly demonstrated in defense of others who are not even present.

Courage is taking action counter to one’s own best interest, simply because it’s the right thing to do.  A popular quote states that character is revealed in the actions taken when no one is looking.  I would add that courage provides the resolve.

Next Post:  Leadership and Vision

3. Leadership and Humility

humility-depression-soupThe third attribute demonstrated by superior leaders is often the most elusive and under-appreciated.  The very concept of humility rarely crosses the mind of most people in positions of authority.  It is simply not how we are typically conditioned to think.  Our culture champions the loud, the bold, and the brazen.  I stated early on that we live in a self-centric society.  It’s the “me” generation – self-absorbed, self-centered, self-inflated, narcissistic, entitled, demanding instant gratification, and lacking any sense of personal responsibility.  This is the age of entitlement.  At the risk of sounding like somebody’s grandfather, today’s generation is vapid and superficial, placing more value on appearance than character.

I guess it’s no surprise that humility is often interpreted as a sign of weakness, and those with a humble, unassuming demeanor are perceived as lacking self esteem or confidence.  But in truth, the opposite of confidence is uncertainty, not humility.  To be sure, the opposite of humility is egoism and arrogance.  There’s a wonderful quote by William Temple that aptly sums it up, “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts.  It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.”

Contrary to the view of leadership that many managers maintain, leaders are servants, and superior leaders have a heart for service.  But servitude in this context does not mean that leaders are subservient – they don’t wait on people, do their jobs for them, or clean up their messes.  Here, servitude means that leaders work on behalf of the people they lead, serving the best interests of the individuals, team, customers, and organization.  Through training, guidance, and the continuity of vision and direction they provide, humble leaders constantly strive to better others.

Humble leaders do not need to seek the spotlight of recognition.  In fact, no competent leader is anxious to impress people with his or her performance credentials.  Their success is defined not by being indispensable to the organization, but by leading others to lead themselves to self-sufficiency.  Remember, the most effective leader is one who makes his own presence unnecessary.  Rather than seek personal recognition for the goals they accomplish, they make the success of others their path to personal achievement.

Humans are imperfect creatures, and there is nothing superhuman about superior leaders.  All are fallible, but as with most failings, it is the manner in which the shortfall is handled that sets effective leaders apart.  Leaders who forget or ignore their own weaknesses will inevitably fail.  Strong leaders are definite and decisive, but not inflexible.  They acknowledge and own the mistakes they make.  They do not perpetuate bad decisions out of ego or fear, but adapt to changing circumstances and know when to change their mind.  Character and trust is strengthened when leaders admit and take ownership of mistakes.

Humble leaders acknowledge and understand their limitations, and are vigilant in their efforts to mitigate their shortcomings.  Rather than feel threatened, they surround themselves with others whose skill sets compliment their own areas of weakness.  Keeping their egos in check, they put the strength and success of the team ahead of any desire for the personal spotlight.

Finally, leaders who understand the importance of humility do not abuse their authority.  In fact, they understand the difference between having authority and being authoritative.  To reuse an analogy, authority is like a sword.  Those who are authoritative swing it indiscriminately, either to reinforce their position of power or out of simple ignorance and inexperience.  The recently promoted have a dangerous tendency to let their newly bestowed title go straight to their heads.  They wield their title like a sword, without first establishing credibility and trust.  These managers have not yet figured out that there is no correlation between title and authority beyond the implied presumption of power.  Like trust and respect, true authority is earned, not bestowed.  Without it, the power of influence is superficial and stifled.

David Packard, the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, exemplified humility in his leadership and management of his company.  A man who avoided publicity, Packard is quoted as saying: “You shouldn’t gloat about anything you’ve done; you ought to keep going and find something better to do.”  Superior leaders, like Dave Packard, are humble, with a willingness to serve others first.  They embrace their weaknesses, and admit mistakes.

In my own place of business, we love to quote a customer who once said it best, “It is most important to be humble.”

Next Post:  Leadership and Courage

2. Leadership and Discipline

discipline-depression-strikeAs I wrote in my last post, personal discipline, as it contributes to strength of character, ensures we are guided by principle rather than emotion or personal desire.  In that context, self-discipline, resilience, and integrity all go hand in hand.  But in a much broader sense, the discipline that strong leaders demonstrate reflects much more than mere self-control.

Disciplined leaders must be able to consistently make decisions that are clear-headed, informed, and conclusive.  Their response to difficult and stressful situations is thoughtful and purposeful, never random or subjective, particularly in emotionally charged situations.  Objectives are communicated clearly and unambiguously. This is not always an easy thing to do, which is why this attribute has such a profound impact on those around us.  To borrow (and modify) a quote from the world of sports… “Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.”  A firm, definite, and decisive leader demonstrates grace under pressure, very clearly reinforcing the perception that he or she is in complete control (of both the situation and his/her own emotions).

While disciplined leaders are decisive, they must at the same time exercise sound judgment.  I read somewhere that judgment is the application of wisdom.  Emotions run high in times of crisis.  Most people intuitively look for someone to “do something” in emergencies or uncomfortable situations. It often requires great discipline to think before responding.  As Jimi Hendrix is famously quoted, “Knowledge speaks, wisdom listens.”  Any situation that requires action, whether it is crisis, conflict, or moral failure (of self or others) necessitates a thoughtful and measured response from a leader.  Knowledge and experience are necessary, even crucial.  But like a sword, they are only as effective as the person wielding them.

Drawing on a distinction that will be further explored in a later post, leaders can and should be flexible when appropriate.  However, it is one thing to compromise on matters of preference, it is another to compromise on matters of principle.  Strong, disciplined leaders understand this difference and are of unwavering conviction.

Unfortunately, in a world where the boundaries of morality and foundation of ethics are deemed malleable and subject to individual interpretation (so as not to offend one group or another), any semblance of absolute “right” and “wrong” is obscured.  Right and wrong become a matter of convenience and opinion, lacking any moral or ethical bearing or even anything close to consensus.

It takes courage to draw a line in the sand, to stand up for what you believe in.  Some consider this to be close-minded or prejudicial, even intolerant.  One thing is for sure.  Those in positions of influence weaken themselves as leaders whenever they compromise their principles.  Whether in work groups or politics, it is rare to find everyone in agreement, and even the strongest leaders can and should be questioned and appropriately challenged.  Values vary and people come to different conclusions and form different beliefs.  It requires strength of conviction and great discipline to stay the course.  Fortunately, faith and trust are more important than belief.  People are far more willing to follow a disciplined leader they trust, particularly when they disagree.  However, no one will follow a leader they don’t trust or in whom they have no faith – leaders who fail to be true to themselves and the principles on which they claim to stand.

It is important to remember that as leaders, we are also tasked with teaching.  It is quite common for managers to want to maintain personal control over every responsibility they are tasked to accomplish.  Our desire for perfection and to be needed often gets in the way of the greater goal we seek.  After all, even as children we’re taught, “If you want something done right you have to do it yourself.”  But as I said earlier, people need room to fail as well as succeed.  Superior leaders keep this bigger picture in mind, and delegate what doesn’t absolutely require their personal attention.  It is not an easy thing to do.  Most leaders have achieved their position by “doing.”  It takes courage to give up some of that control.  It takes discipline and a sense of humble acknowledgment that only through the achievement of those we lead will we as leaders truly become successful.

Next Post:  Leadership and Humility

1. Leadership and Character

character-depression-lange-womanStrength of character, as the blog title implies, is one of the most important attributes of a leader.  As I stated earlier, effective leaders must have credibility, the trust and confidence of others.  Key to this is a strong sense of integrity.  Integrity is built on honesty and the consistent, steadfast adherence to established principles and standards.  Strong leadership is dependent upon character, and character is certainly measured, if not defined, by integrity.

Perhaps the greatest risk to the integrity of a leader is temptation.  In the eyes of employees, team members, students, constituents, and even family members, leaders are held to a higher ethical standard.  Leaders are expected to conduct themselves in a manner that is measured and fair and beyond reproach.  Of course, the reality is that leaders are fallible humans, subject to the same temptations, distractions, and vices as everyone else.  But the perception and expectation that leaders will act in the best interest of others persists nonetheless.  For this reason, a strong sense of personal self discipline is critical.  Self discipline ensures we act and make decisions based on principle rather than emotion or personal desire.  This is one area where our political leaders and our political system tend to fail us.

Isn’t it ironic that the entire political establishment of our country spends so much time and effort working to sustain its competition for power?  If democrats and republicans spent as much time working together for the good of the country as they do working to keep their respective parties in power, imagine what could be accomplished.  And this holds true not only at the party level, but even more egregiously at the individual level.  We are bombarded on virtually a daily basis with headlines that expose fraud, corruption, and abuse of power on some level.  It would be bad enough if these transgressions were conducted for the benefit of a given state or locale, but they invariably serve the interests of the indicted individual and his or her cronies.  Political posturing at the party level is no better.  Legislative actions are routinely road blocked for no other reason than they’re being championed by someone on the other side of the isle.  Worse, many bills are bought and paid for by private interest groups.  You can call me naive all you want.  It’s all about one hand greasing the other.  It’s all about maintaining power, maintaining control.  Serving the country is not always first on the agenda.

Unfortunately, although manifested differently, these same character flaws are often revealed in business as well, where organizational integrity takes a back seat to revenue and profits.  Company executives line their pockets at the expense of investors and employees, executive pay is outrageously out of scale with performance, perks extravagant and fiscally irresponsible.  Accounting fraud, consumer deception, defective and dangerous products – all commonplace and all profitable.  Even within the day to day operation of the business, the politics of power and influence drive many of the decisions that are made, policies that are introduced, even promotions that take place.  It’s quite a chess game, the posturing and positioning, and always with the underlying design to sustain or grow someone’s position of power and influence.

Now, I admit that I’m painting a dire and pessimistic picture.  Certainly not all leaders are like this, in politics or business.  But the fact is that what I’ve described takes place every day in our world – not just in “the” world, but in “our” world.  The lack of integrity we experience in our leaders is extremely destructive to our faith in their ability to effectively lead.  Whether a boss, an elected official, or an entire company or industry, their character is called into question every day, either headlined on the nightly news for all the world to see, or quietly whispered between co-workers around the water fountain.  Unfortunately, the effect of it all is a greatly diminished sense of trust in our leaders at every level of society.  And without our trust, how long will we continue to follow their lead?  After all, trust is a product of character and integrity, and part of the foundation on which effective leadership is built.

If character is built upon a foundation of integrity, discipline, and trust, it’s then framed with resilience and covered in unwavering conviction and confidence.  While having many weaknesses and limitations, leaders must be strong and undaunted.  However, do not confuse voice of confidence with voice of arrogance.  Ego, pride, and an inflated sense of self-importance all breed arrogance.  How many times have we answered a daughter or son’s “Why?” with, “Because I said so!”  As a parent I can personally relate to that, but it is a great example of a response based on title/position instead of conviction.  If a decision is based on objective criteria, would not a better response be a confident explanation designed to educate and foster trust?  Strong leaders do not communicate from a perspective of position or title.  They don’t have to.  Quite the contrary, their voice of authority comes from the strength of conviction of right and wrong, not strength of ego.  It’s a subtle distinction, but one that is extraordinarily important.

Finally, strength of character cannot be complete without sensitivity to the needs of others.  Empathy is essential to compassion, sensitivity, and understanding.  Leaders must be willing to give people room to fail as well as succeed. Everyone needs encouragement and reinforcement when they struggle.  That’s why we coach.  Those strong of character do not delight in the failure of others, they are burdened by it.  However, the real distinction is that they feel compelled to help.

Next Post:  Leadership and Discipline

Qualities of a Superior Leader

A colleague and I were discussing leadership qualities earlier today and she asked why some “good” people don’t make good leaders.  If they have good character, why are they unable to “influence” others?  The short and simple answer is that good intentions and strength of character alone do not guarantee success as a leader.  While strength of character is important, indeed essential, there are several other attributes and qualities that are also necessary. Ironically, people don’t have to be “good” at all for others to follow them.  The power of influence is as often wielded by those with nefarious intentions, or more specifically, intentions that are primarily self serving.  That’s why it’s so important to understand that leaders emerge independent of titles and positions of authority.  If only they would use their powers for good instead of evil!

Key to any leader’s success is credibility.  Credibility must first be established in order to earn the trust and respect of others.  So, how do we establish credibility?  “Walking the talk,” “leading by example,” “being hands on,” “open honest communication” – I’ve heard these solutions in virtually every leadership seminar I’ve ever attended.  But what do they really mean?  These are all valid methods for establishing and maintaining credibility as a leader, but still do not speak to the deeper innate qualities that almost mysteriously manifest as superior leadership in some, while somehow leaving others impotent and ineffective.

Over the years, I’ve read countless books, spent hours upon hours in classes and programs, and dedicated the better part of my professional career searching for the meaning of superior leadership and the qualities that will make me most effective, in my role at work and also in my everyday life.  My desire is to not merely be a better manager, but also a better husband and father, a better friend and a better person.  I freely and openly acknowledge that I have been heavily influenced by numerous teachers, colleagues, subordinates and superiors.  After all, we’re all products of our environment and experiences.  I’ve filed away bits and pieces of principles from numerous scholars and authors from John MacArthur to Peter Senge, and added them all to the wealth of lessons I’ve learned first hand through practical experience.  And all of it I’ve slowly shaped into my own personal leadership model.  It will always be a work in progress, for the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know, and so the model is constantly evolving through an endless pursuit of illusive perfection.

In my model, the qualities of a superior leader can be broken down into 5 essential attributes:

  1. Character
  2. Discipline
  3. Humility
  4. Courage
  5. Vision

These attributes represent the broadest measure of a leader’s effectiveness and success.  I view them sort of like chapter titles in a book.  To get a complete picture of what superior leadership looks like, you have to keep reading.

Over the next several posts, I will explore in detail the individual qualities these attributes represent and hopefully provide a meaningful context for application.

The Meaning of Leadership

There are numerous perceptions that people hold regarding the meaning of leadership.  In one very understated and cliché sense, we’re taught that projects are managed while people are led.  While this is true, it is unfortunately too often the sole basis on which corporate training programs are structured.

Even well developed management training programs that do a good job of defining and describing the attributes of effective leadership can be brilliantly illustrative in terms of content while failing to establish the appropriate context, i.e., the complexion, qualities, and virtues that superior leaders tend to share and the manner in which these traits are revealed.  In fact, most of the training I’ve received in business and as a manager has focused on the mechanics of the job – employee performance development and management, coaching, team development, training, etc., etc.   While the few true leadership components have done an admirable job of listing the performance actions and attributes that make managers successful, none have addressed the personal qualities and characteristics that make certain individuals exceptional leaders.

What is “Leadership” anyway?  Wikipedia defines leadership as “the ability of an individual to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of the organizations of which they are members.”  Reducing this to its core, leadership is influence.  Therefore, it stands to reason that influence becomes the true test of a person’s leadership.

Ironically, the ability to influence others, either in an organization or in the political arena, ultimately doesn’t depend on an individual’s title or position of authority.  Far too often, those in positions of “authority” confuse their ability to inflict their will on others (where authorized by their position or title) as a “right” of leadership.  This is frequently the case with new managers and those whose motivation for leadership is primarily based on a desire for authority in the form of personal control and power.  Such relationships may command respect in a superficial sense, but are void of trust and respect.  They are based solely on fear rather than empowerment and personal ownership, and offer no provision for alignment of ideas or ideals.

In this self-centric mindset, the emphasis on success is internal.  The success of both subordinate individuals and the team is viewed by the manager as being dependent upon his or her personal success.  These managers tend to believe that in order to validate their own value to the organization they must make themselves essential to the success of the team.  I see this in teams that are largely dysfunctional when the leader is absent.  Decisions cannot be made without the manager’s consent.  Personal ownership and accountability has been stifled.  There is little or no basis of trust in the competence and discretion of the team members.  This type of manager hordes power, controls rather than leads, and lacks the self confidence to allow subordinates or the entire team to excel in his absence.  They make the success of their team completely dependent upon their presence and participation.

I suggest that just the opposite is true of superior leaders – that the true measure of success for a leader is not how necessary he is to the team, but in fact how unnecessary he is.   This might sound radical and counter-intuitive, so let me explain.  Simply put, if a leader has truly done his job, the people who work for him should be able to function autonomously for an extended period of time without the necessity of his direct supervision.  They should all be aligned both individually and collectively with the organizational vision and goals.  They should each have a strong sense of personal ownership and accountability, both to their leader and to each other.  They should exhibit integrity and self-discipline.  They should be enthusiastic and self-motivated.  And finally, they should have a balanced sense of selflessness (teamwork) and drive for personal achievement.  This is the very essence of a high performing team, and the best managers and strongest leaders, in effect, actually make themselves less and less relevant as their teams become more and more self-sufficient.

The ability to influence others is a powerful and awesome responsibility.  Effective, superior leadership, under which individual and team performance is developed and cultivated to its highest potential, requires uncommon, illusive, and perhaps innate personal qualities.

Next Post:  The Qualities of a Superior Leader