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Leadership: The formula for success


Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart  is famous for saying that while the definition of pornography might be vague, “I know it when I see it.” Not to equate leadership with porn, but most of us know it when we see it, whether we can define it or not.

John Maxwell, author of “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” says that “everything rises and falls on leadership.”  He’s exactly right.

All of us have experienced bad leadership in some form.  Napoleon Hill wrote “Think and Grow Rich” many years ago, in which he interviewed the most successful men and women in America over a twenty year period.  Many people have noted the attributes that Hill detailed for being successful.

But he also listed 10 major causes of failed leadership.  They are:

  1. Inability to organize details
  2. Unwillingness to render humble service
  3. Expectations of being paid for what you know, rather than for what you do.
  4. Fear of competition from followers
  5. Lack of imagination
  6. Selfishness
  7. Intemperance
  8.  Disloyalty (to his associates, those above him, and those below him)
  9. Emphasis on the ‘authority’ of leadership
  10. Emphasis on title

I want to talk about a few of those, but add something related: Leaders that fail to lead.

It’s frustrating to attempt following a leader that refuses to lead.  Advanced Business Consulting cites a study that says 70% of employees have the feeling their leader has no idea of what they’re doing.

Leaders MUST lead.  They need to equip their followers with the tools and information they need to do their jobs efficiently.  Leadership is not a passive occupation, it’s hard work.  It’s also the key to success for any enterprise.

Leaders must be genuine.  

If you look over the list that Napoleon Hill compiled of failed leadership traits, you’ll note that many of them can be lumped under this.  The arrogant know it all,  lording it over subordinates, leaning on his title, and suspicious and jealous of his followers is precisely the person that no one wants to follow.

Many of us, including me, grew up with sort of a military philosophy of leadership.  The strong stalwart leader, standing alone, barking orders that are to be obeyed without question.

Interestingly, there are actually times when that kind of leadership works, at least temporarily.  Those times are always crisis situations. If an infantry platoon is ambushed, the leader doesn’t have time to be nice or seek consensus.  And everyone in the platoon accepts this because their lives depend upon it.

But, even in the military, that brand of leadership is not encouraged or practiced by successful officers outside of a crisis situation.  One of the reasons the soldiers obey his orders during an ambush, is that the officer has helped to prepare them. He’s trained alongside and helped them become proficient at their tasks.  He’s promoted an esprit de corps, and a shared vision.  The soldiers have come to see their platoon officer as a genuine leader whom they trust.

In Stephen Ambrose’s great book “Band of Brothers” he interviews members of Easy Company  about their beloved commander, Major Winters. One told him, “we would do anything for him, we just hated to let him down.”  That’s leadership.

Winters, a courageous tough commander, was also an humble servant, who viewed his job as helping his men be successful. This led to the organizational success he was vaunted for.  Look over the list of failing leadership traits listed by Hill again;  Winters exhibited none of them.

Be genuine

Leaders MUST communicate.  

I often joke and say that whenever I see two people in a fight, I always coach the one on the bottom, because that’s where I have the most experience!   I can coach leaders that communicate poorly, in part, because I’ve often fallen so short in this area myself.

Many people in leadership positions enjoy talking about their “vision.”  Here’s the problem, as long as it is your vision, getting it implemented is an uphill battle.   This where the dirty little work that all type A personalities hate comes into play, and that word is “process.”

You can not just “tell” your vision, you must move the ownership from you to your team.  The way this happens is that you open yourself up to input from others, and allow changes so that it becomes a shared vision.  Once that happens, great things can occur.

You must communicate, communicate, and communicate again to your team members and employees, and don’t overlook the less obvious team members.

Many years ago, I planned and promoted a significant  church event which involved considerable advertising.  I did a great job of assembling a team to help, went through a process, got buy in from everyone, and thought I had it nailed.

But.. I forgot to tell the people in the office that would be answering the phones.  People began calling in response to our considerable promotional activities, and the people answering the phone knew nothing whatsoever about. Very embarrassing.

We live in an age where people are bombarded with messages all day every day.  The idea that you can issue a memo, or an email and think you’ve adequately communicated anything, is a huge mistake.

Empower People

Empowerment is an amazing leadership tool.   Your legacy as a leader is not so much in what you accomplish, as it is what the people you lead accomplish.   Employees will gladly assume ownership once empowered.  It adds meaning and significance to their lives.

And finally..  learn to be humble.   

Renowned author and researcher Jim Collins says that the number one attribute of great leaders is humility.  In fact, in his book “How the Mighty Fall” he says the number one step to failure, is “hubris born of success.”  In other words, arrogance.

Arrogant people don’t learn, because in their minds, they already know everything.  The leaders most susceptible to this are those that have experienced some degree of success.  Because of their accomplishments, they assume they now know it all, and therein lay the seeds of failure.  The old Testament says that “pride goes before a fall,” and many leaders have learned that lesson the hard way.

Be successful, let your organization rise, not fall, on your leadership.  View yourself as an humble servant, work hard, and measure success by the accomplishments of those under you.

Famed Alabama coach Bear Bryant would always give his team players the credit when they won.   But when they lost, he always shouldered the blame. That’s the mark of a great leader.