Summary – The Qualities of a Superior Leader

You know, being a strong leader is really just a simple matter of putting others first.  It’s having the confidence in yourself and your own abilities to let others have the spotlight.  It’s understanding that your own success depends entirely upon the success of those you lead.  The self-efficacy of the strongest leaders comes not from titles or promotions, raises or recognition, but from seeing those with whom they’ve achieved some measure of influence become better for the experience.  Regardless of rank or title or position, and independent of any designated authority, leaders influence those around them.  Superior leaders are set apart by their strength of character and integrity.

Superior leadership, through the attributes of character I’ve laid out, requires tremendous personal discipline and uncommon selflessness and sacrifice.  The pursuit of each attribute – character, discipline, humility, courage, and vision is an ongoing endeavor for most of us.  It certainly is for me.  They perhaps represent an idealistic goal, but I know with all certainty that they form the core qualities of superior character based leadership.

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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.

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