Today's Thoughts on Leadership


Tuesday, December 1, 2017


What makes a good leader?

              This is a great question to consider. In my 55 years of experience, 30 of which were in the military, I have found there is a handful of things that people must choose to lead well. It's never just one thing. Though many good leaders will rely on one trait more than others, I think the key to becoming a good leader comes from building a cluster of skills, traits, and attitudes.

              I think the easiest way to frame leading well is in setting a good example. This means demonstrating for others the characteristics you want them to possess and the actions you want them to take. The people we call “Good Leaders” choose to do certain things. They care. They take responsibility. They maintain situational awareness. They communicate effectively. They take feedback. They develop skills or expertise. They learn about themselves and appreciate others. The value of different attributes may vary from situation to situation.

For the astronaut in a craft punctured by a micro-meteor, action and commitment are essential; “Patch the Hole!” For the mission support team on the ground, long term analytical thinking serves best; "Ok, you broke the telemetry module in the haste to patch the hole. Now that the environment is stable, we're sending instructions on how to fix that and a list of the least useful parts of the interior that can be re-purposed for a long-term fix of the hull breach."

Both activities involve emotional control, in addition to all the other characteristics mentioned above. The leader in each situation must model, demonstrate, and set the example of how to behave. In every case deciding on leadership means setting an example of what is needed. Imagine a hot head running around mission control screaming at everyone to hurry because there is a puncture of a space craft or an astronaut sitting back and taking an inventory of least useful parts of the interior while air streams out into space. Easy to see what a bad leader looks like in each situation. To lead well one must see what is needed in the situation. The decision to lead effectively means shifting emphasis among the factors in the skill cluster.

A prerequisite is caring, but just caring is not enough. Lots of people care. Some do a little bit. Some say they, 'do their part.' A good leader decides to go beyond that and takes responsibility for outcomes. This personal investment in the goal is essential and an inspiring example.

Taking responsibility also means understanding the situation. A good leader must be faithful to reality. If the situation is a flaming hot spot or a smoldering potential flash point, understanding the situation enables making good leadership decisions.

Communicating effectively helps people lead. If you look behind you and no one is following, you're not leading, you're just out for a walk. Yes, you must walk the walk, but you must also talk with others, share your vision, explain simple steps that others can follow, and this includes the often over looked part of communication; listening and taking feedback. How would you ever get any better without attending to feedback. That is reality telling you how effective your decisions and actions are. Sometimes it comes in the form of other people telling you, possibly not by using words at all, maybe they just walk away. Communication is not only about what you know and say, but also about what you do. You must demonstrate that you care. Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.

With all that said, you still must know something. You can be a jack of all trades, but you must be a master of at least one. Developing an elevated level of skill or knowledge in a concentrated area helps people that choose to lead, by providing the experience of getting good at something. It can teach you about yourself and help you appreciate what others went through to become experts at what they do, even if it is different than what you do. You must learn what tools you have in your personal tool kit, so when you care about a situation enough to take responsibility for the outcome, you recognize the situation and the actions required to reach your desired goal, then you can communicate with others and bring together a team of experts to reach that next end-state.

If you could do it alone, you wouldn't need to lead. Leading is a decision to bring other people with you on your journey, for their expertise and skills sure, but also for their company, and the sheer joy of accomplishing a goal together. Appreciate what others bring to the solution set as well.

And ... please give this topic some thought. I have given this thought over the years and I'm sure I haven't reached the definitive answer of what one must care about, choose to learn, and decide to do, in order to lead well. I hope my thoughts (wall of text) will encourage you to write your own opinions below or take exception to mine and let me know how I can improve. I look forward to your comments on this important topic.