Reflections on Leadership


A friend of mine asked me recently for my insights on leading an organization. It was the first time in a while that I’d been compelled to think about it.

My first response to such a question is always to well up with internal doubt, mystified as to why anyone would want my advice.  This is a manifestation of humility, a value pounded into me by the amazing leaders who taught me whatever it is that I know about this subject.  They also taught me to get beyond my doubts and trust my own instincts.  Moreover, they taught me by their example that a large part of leadership is taking the time and effort to share hard-earned lessons with those who will follow … to always be training your replacement.  It was in that spirit that I got past my self-loathing and offered the following suggestions for successfully leading a dynamic organization peopled by superb, skilled, and intelligent employees … charged with a challenging mission in a difficult and complex operating environment.  I offer them to you, for whatever they may be worth.

Set a vision, unify your people around it, resource them to achieve it, and then do your best to sink into the scenery and let them take ownership. 

Vision isn’t a catchy business term.  It’s fundamentally the most important task of a leader, because it binds the intellect of the organization together in pursuit of a common purpose.  Without it, your people will (at best) take their best guess as to the direction their energies should be channeled, or (at worst) pursue their own pragmatic or narrow objectives, which may or may not coincide with those of the organization.

Remember, the only reason for leadership is the creation of unified action toward an objective important enough to require a team with specific skills.  The leader’s task is not just to communicate a vision, but to police the rank and file to ensure movement in a unified direction.  Any vision will resonate with some while   proving abrasive to or even alienating others; this is the nature of anything important enough that it needs to be communicated and pursued.  The good leader has an alert enough eye to watch for reflections and judge the relative emotional investment of team members.  The best leader is eager to employ persuasion, reduce resistance by showing  team members what’s in it for them, and to get everyone moving together in pace and direction.

Without resources, a vision is just an illusion.  It’s your job to fight for them, and to use them wisely.  Shut out the epoch-long debate about the relationship between efficiency and effectiveness; the relationship is simple: for an organization to be effective, it must first make efficient use of resources.  This means not wasting a single training opportunity and not buying a single shred of unnecessary equipment.  It also means not failing to provide every necessary training opportunity and not shorting equipment accounts.  Perhaps the most overlooked resource in modern times is also the most precious: time.  As Napoleon once remarked, it’s the one thing that can’t be manufactured.  Your people need time to cultivate the ideas, innovations, and performance that will make your vision a reality; guard their time like a junkyard dog.

Once you’ve created a shared sense of purpose and engendered adherence to it, get out of the way.  Leading from the front is necessary at times, and leaders with good instincts will correctly judge when.  But most often, the leader should be concerned with empowering subordinates to run day-to-day operations; this increases the sense of ownership across the team.  It also ensures the team is able to do its job without the leader’s direct guidance, a capability every leader should be eternally working to create.

Identify, invest in, build up, and rely upon your key players. Let them lead the unit day-to-day, intervening less than might be your impulse but enough that your people feel your hand on the reins.

There is persistent debate over how a leader can establish the right level of involvement, and that riddle is answered by following this advice: find out who your top performers are, and entrust the basic functioning of the unit to them.  Too many leaders make the mistake of trying to be everywhere at all times.  This fosters a number of teamwork pathologies, ranging from making your people over-reliant on your direct involvement — which degrades their own capacity for autonomous judgment and decision making — to actively micromanaging every aspect of unit performance.  These pathologies will inhibit a unit from approaching its potential in the short term, and will prevent subordinates from emerging and developing their own leadership capacity over the long term.  But there are also leaders who take this advice too far, removing themselves to such an unhealthy distance from unit activities that they lose situational awareness, along with the respect of the people they seek to lead.

When the people of an organization have to seek out the leader for input or decisions too often, they begin to feel like a nuisance or distraction from what they perceive the leader would rather be doing.  This shuts down communication channels.  The best leaders have to find a way to be emotionally available to people without creating dependency. How do you know you’ve got the balance correct?  When you’re aware enough that nothing significant comes as a surprise …  but not so aware that you’re catching all of the small talk, you’re operating with a good level of involvement.  It’s critical, no matter what, that the leader never lose the “street level” perspective favored by the organization’s rank-and-file and championed by its informal leaders.  Whether s/he agrees or disagrees with the prevailing view, knowing that view is a necessary precondition to communicating effectively.

Work hard to make your communications as impactful as possible. Don’t stand silent on things you know your people are talking about. Whatever you do, tell the truth, even if it means you differ from the corporate line — it’s quite alright to differ respectfully while telling everyone to keep rowing.

Don’t engage in public events without mentally preparing.  No need to memorize what you’re going to say, but not advisable to deliver without any rehearsal, and simply unacceptable to be seen as lazy in your preparation for special or ceremonial moments.  You might officiate several dozen promotions, transfers, or retirements in your time as a unit leader, but never forget that each of those events is a singular and emotionally important moment for those involved.

When an issue or policy is impacting your people, don’t avoid it.  Don’t leave it to the corporate public affairs folks; they don’t know your people and couldn’t possibly know the best way to pry open the minds of your people sufficiently for a message to sink in.  As the leader, you’re both the voice of the corporation and the channel by which your people can give their opinion to upper management.  You need to know their views.  Perhaps more importantly, they need to know your views.  Disagreeing with the corporate line is a touchy subject and hard to do without looking disloyal; to be sure, this must be done with care because if you’re seen as a renegade, your subordinates may rally to your side but lose confidence in the larger organization, institution, and mission to which they’ve committed. That hurts you and everyone.  But finding the right balance is your job.  It’s why you get paid the big bucks.

What you absolutely cannot do is simply be a re-transmitter for the corporation.  Whether you agree, disagree, or have no opinion concerning a given corporate policy, you owe your people the truth, especially when it comes to subject matter they hold dear.  Take a position and  explain why.  When you differ with company policy in principle, take pains to tell everyone that while you don’t agree with it, you’ll continue to enforce it and so must they, until such time as it changes.  They’ll respect you for telling the truth and exposing the fact that you’re not a mindless automaton.  You’ll also get credit for treating them like adults, since they already know through the immutable power of common sense that you must occasionally disagree with this policy or that, even as you fulfill your duty to enforce the rules.  Don’t miss this opportunity to build respect.  Don’t fall back on stock company jargon or talk in a scripted or quasi-political manner. This is inappropriate for any leader at any level.  Rank and file Americans abhor double-talk, so just give it to them straight and you’ll find they crave what you have to say even when it’s not wholly agreeable in substance.

Care, and make sure — without being too obvious or hackneyed — that your people know you care. Fight for them, even occasionally when you know you will lose … it engenders loyalty, and sometimes you need that to hold them together when the “big” reasons for all they’re giving just aren’t enough.

No one will follow you until they know you care.  You have to be demonstrative enough that they know you’re invested — not just in the shared mission you’re pursuing together — but in their fate and future.  Know their stories.  Know the texture of their lives.  Know what makes them tick.  Make small talk with them.  Play intramural sports with them.  Go to social events and do your best to leave your leader aura at the door so you can mix and mingle with them like a normal human being.  They will drop their guard just enough that you can get to know them as people, rather than just as employees.  Thinking of them as individual humans rather than objects for your manipulation is the surest way to stay in touch with your own humility, and to build the two-way loyalty with them that will see the team through its inevitable challenges.

One of the surest ways to rally your people around you and your vision is to go to battle for them.  Don’t look at this as a chore, but as an opportunity.  Your job as a unit leader is not to be adored by various bureaucrats and functional managers across your company.  Your job is not to ingratiate yourself to your peers and superiors by being conciliatory in all things.  This not only imbalances the relative power of agents within an organization in ways that can warp its purpose and mangle its results, but it betrays that which is your job: to create unified and enthusiastic action among your subordinates toward a common objective.  If you fight for them and they see you doing it, they’ll fight for what you tell them is important.  If you don’t, they won’t.  Some things are really simple, and this is one of them.  Don’t worry so much about keeping the peace outside your unit that you fail to secure for your people the resources and results they expect and deserve from outside agencies.  This is how you honor them, and they will respond in kind.

There is a theatrical dimension to this aspect of leadership that is distasteful to some, and that’s understandable given that the values upon which effective leadership is based include integrity and humility, two things somewhat betrayed anytime a facade of purpose is constructed.  But again, that’s why you get paid the big bucks.  If your marginal offense to these honored principles helps found a record of victory for your organization, you will have scribed the ledger of goodness clearly in your favor and will be able to meet all judgers with a clear conscience … not to mention a winning record and all that entails.

When the situation calls for it, be tough. Tough as nails. This is part of taking care of your people, and the good ones will appreciate and admire you for it. They’ll fight hard to maintain the standards you set when they see you safeguarding the standards they care about.

 A large part of leading is taking care of people.  The use of the term “care” connotes nurturing, which in turn implies a gentle hand.  But being “caring” is not the same as “taking care” … and ultimately, this line of thinking can create a necessary but insufficient approach that neglects a key trait: the willingness to be uncompromising and even punitive when the situation dictates.  What I’m offering throughout this body of advice is a method that treats people as intelligent adults, which the overwhelming majority assuredly are.  This means they not only deserve as much trust and autonomy as work conditions allow you to extend … but that they’re also endemically short on excuses when it comes to meeting the high standards you set for them.  When the line is crossed, let it register loud and clear with the crosser, but also throughout your organization.  Other potential offenders will take note and be deterred, but more importantly, the balance of your unit — those committed to the vision you’ve together established as your driving force and aware that standards of conduct and performance are core to success — will appreciate your willingness to safeguard what you’ve together decided is important.

Perhaps most important, do your best to deflect the pressures directed at your people from higher, rather than magnifying them. This is a tough thing to do, but if you don’t effectively guard the gate of your organization, external actors will conspire to dominate the time and mission focus of your people.

We’re living in a world where too many otherwise rational human beings have grown to believe it is possible to extract more from less.  A world that demands gratification without investment, results without patience, and nobility absent chivalry.  In this paradigm, the inhabitants of the ivory towers of senior management — afflicted with a common disease but given access to peculiar authority — have come to place excessive demands on those they employ, and leaders at the execution level across innumerable industries and walks of life now find themselves bemoaning the excessive distraction, administrivia, and ass-covering legal and political minutiae forced upon their employees as a function of this broader pathology.  As a leader, you can’t hope to control the winds, but you can control how you set your sails; guard the gate ferociously, push back where appropriate, and persistently reinforce priorities.  Remember that if everything is important, nothing is important.

Leaders are both born and made.  Some have a natural set of aptitudes that give them an advantage over others.  But no one becomes an effective leader without thinking about it, studying it, and working on it all the time.  So think about it, study it, and keep working on it. There are worse things to do with your life than to pull a bunch of people together and lead them in the production of a consequential result … but your desire for it to happen won’t be enough: you’ll have to fully leverage your wits and perseverance, too.

I welcome your engagement and reaction to this closing assertion and the many others offered in this post.  I wish you the best in leading others, which is a sacred privilege and a monumental challenge all at once.

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