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.

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

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

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

Where are our leaders and why do they fail us?

What is it about this culture that we live in?  Just consider for a moment the TV shows we watch, the games we play, the behaviors and values we espouse and celebrate. Our entire society champions greed, rudeness, backstabbing, dishonesty, and entitlement – every self serving, “me” centered behavior you can think of. We view fair play and integrity as boring symbols of weakness.  Even morality is continually redefined and adapted according to whatever purpose or agenda we deem convenient and least offensive to the masses.

Is it any wonder?  Think about it.  Who are our role models, our leaders?  I read once that humans are the only creatures in nature who will willingly follow a poor leader.  Perhaps that’s because we tend to focus on the wrong attributes when accepting leaders.  We value credentials more than we do values; promises and speeches are confused with true strength of character and integrity.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where our role models and leaders repeatedly and consistently fail us and themselves.  Our daily news is filled with scandal and disgrace of people in leadership positions at every conceivable level.  Our political system is overflowing with leaders whose actions are driven not by a desire to help constituents or, heaven forbid, leave the world better than they found it, but by the darker personal ambitions born of narcissism, greed, revenge, sexual perversion, and the good old fashioned pursuit of power.  Personal agendas are self-focused, and party agendas are party focused.

As an ideological conservative, I believe in and support many of the values and positions of the Republican Party platform.  But let me be very, very clear here.  This blog is in no way intended to be a political statement.  Quite the contrary, I find myself disgusted with both the Republican and Democratic leadership in our country.  Both parties have been rocked with shameful scandal after scandal after scandal.  The lack of character and integrity, and indeed, even good judgment, is astounding to me.  No, my focus here is on the concept of strong and effective leadership, the application of which is equally relevant to both liberals and conservatives, and anyone else in a position to influence others.

So, where are our leaders?  What happened to the concept of character, where integrity takes priority over personal desires?  Of course there are exceptions, but generally speaking, leadership in our world through the gradual, cultural debasement of character, morality, and personal accountability, has largely lost its way.

Next Post – The Meaning of Leadership

Welcome!

This is the inaugural post to The Character of Leadership, a blog inspired by the startling and profoundly disturbing lack of effective conservative leadership in our country today.  Drawing on over two decades of personal experience leading people and high performing teams in the business world, I will tackle aspects of leadership that apply to both our political and business cultures, with practical application to home and family as well.