Sunday, April 26, 2009

Leaders Need to Lead

Leadership is, by definition, a lonely business. It is not by happenstance that troop formations from time immemorial have placed the leader alone in front of his troops. He is with them, but he is, in more ways than one, separate from them. It is not a place for people who want everyone to like them.

Real leadership requires that the leader identify a goal, develop (with assistance perhaps) a plan to achieve that goal, communicate the goal to the people and convince them to want to achieve that goal and then execute the plan. Leadership even under the most benign of circumstances is stressful and requires that the leader make choices. Some will - some must - be disappointed, for to choose to do one thing is to choose to ‘not do’ a whole host of things. Leaders by definition are not liked by everyone. But, that is a key element of leadership: it is not about being liked, it is about choosing a goal and then working to achieve it, irrespective of whatever others think or feel.

The Presidency of the United States is an excellent example of extreme leadership: every lesson of leadership can be found within the Presidency even at the best of times. President Bush’s popularity plunged during his second term, but despite what else might be said about his Presidency and his leadership, President Bush chose to make decisions based on what he believed was the right choice for the United States.

While President Obama has expressed the belief that the United States cannot achieve its aims without working cooperatively with other nations, the fact remains that, in the end he is morally and legally obligated to work toward the wants and needs of the United States regardless of how many other nations or groups he may anger.

The lesson for anyone in a leadership position is simple, but difficult: in any situation of leadership you will be tempted to become ‘friends’ with those around you. In many cases these friendships can and will benefit your organization. But the fact remains that the friendships are not what you are being paid for, achieving your company’s or organization’s goals is what pays you. In the end you must do what is right for the company and let your ‘friendship’ with various other organizations see to itself. In the end they too will do the same thing, and understand your actions, despite what they might say at first.

A friend of mine tells the story about the first morning that he woke up after taking command of a ship while at sea. He was shaving when it hit him, as he stared at his own face in the mirror, “now everyone is looking at you.” They are. If you expect the people in your organization to work to make it better, to put it ahead of other things, then you have to do the same, and it had better be real and it better be visible.


At May 9, 2009 at 11:43 PM , Anonymous Dan said...

All so very true!

Quality leadership is not only lonely and difficult, but it must also be selfless.

As I read these comments on leadership, my mind drifts back to a basic course from AOCS days. As a young officer candidate one of the first lessons taught is “The Pyramid of Service.”

Envision a pyramid and divide it laterally into layers. The largest base layer is labeled ‘The United States.’ The next layer as you progress upward is ‘The Navy.’ The subsequent layers are ‘Your Ship’, ‘Your Shipmate’ and lastly the smallest top layer at the point of the pyramid is ‘Self.’

Quality leadership requires the base first be satisfied before all subsequent ‘layers’ can be addressed. In the Naval example, you must always serve your country first – they your Navy – then your ship – then your shipmate – and lastly only after all have been served, you can serve yourself. No leadership decision is correct if it serves the smaller entity at the expense of a base entity. If you serve the Navy at the expense of your country, or if you serve your shipmate at the expense of your ship, you have done a disservice.

The pyramid can easily be modified for all things corporate or political. In the example of the President, he must serve his country and its citizens first. The in-between layers can be world citizenship, etc. The very top layers should be ‘political party’ and then ‘himself.’ Serving his party or himself should be the last of his concerns and should be addressed ONLY after all larger concerns are satisfied.

That said, in the world of politics, unpopularity almost becomes a badge of honor. A President who looks to popularity polls is serving himself and his party before his country, and by definition, is a failed leader.

Leadership in Washington DC is not for Sissy Marys.


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