Commentary

May 24, 2012

Lessons in leadership

by Senior Master Sgt. Dave Merris
944th Civil Engineer Squadron

As leaders we are often faced with the dilemma of how to get the most out of our folks. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, there are a few basic human motivations that we all need satisfied. Among those are esteem and self-actualization. Since everyone is different, so is each of our triggers for motivation. In the end, a leader must rely on their skill and experience in being able to read a situation and apply the right motivation to get the job done. Here are a few lessons about traits of good leaders everyone should know. These were lessons given by Gen. Colin Powell during a speech titled “Outreach to America Program” for Sears Corporate Headquarters in Chicago. I challenge you to incorporate just one of the following statements into your everyday life. You may be surprised at the results.

Lesson 1: “Being responsible sometimes means upsetting people.”

Good leadership involves responsibility to the welfare of the group, which means that some people will get angry at your actions and decisions. It’s inevitable — if you’re honorable. Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity. You’ll avoid the tough decisions, you’ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted, and you’ll avoid offering differential rewards based on differential performance because some people might get upset. Ironically, by procrastinating on the difficult choices, by trying not to get anyone mad, and by treating everyone equally “nicely” regardless of their contributions, you’ll simply ensure that the only people you’ll wind up angering are the most creative and productive people in the organization.

Lesson 2: “The day your people stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

If this were a litmus test, the majority of CEOs would fail. One, they build so many barriers to upward communication that the very idea of someone lower in the hierarchy looking up to the leader for help is ludicrous. Two, the corporate culture they foster often defines asking for help as weakness or failure, so people cover up their gaps, and the organization suffers accordingly. Real leaders make themselves accessible and available. They show concern for the efforts and challenges faced by underlings even, as they demand high standards. Accordingly, they are more likely to create an environment where problem analysis replaces blame.

Lesson 3: “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”

The ripple effect of a leader’s enthusiasm and optimism is awesome. So is the impact of cynicism and pessimism. Leaders who whine and blame engender those same behaviors among their colleagues. I am not talking about stoically accepting organizational stupidity and performance incompetence with a “what, me worry?” smile. I am talking about a gung ho attitude that says “we can change things here, we can achieve awesome goals, we can be the best.” Spare me the grim litany of the “realist;” give me the unrealistic aspirations of the optimist any day.

Lesson 4: “Never neglect details. When everyone’s mind is dulled or distracted the leader must be doubly vigilant.”

Strategy equals execution. All the great ideas and visions in the world are worthless if they can’t be implemented rapidly and efficiently. Good leaders delegate and empower others liberally, but they pay attention to details, every day. (Think about supreme athletic coaches like Jimmy Johnson, Pat Riley and Tony La Russa). Bad ones — even those who fancy themselves as progressive visionaries — think they’re somehow “above” operational details. Paradoxically, good leaders understand that obsessive routine in carrying out the details causes conformity and complacency, which in turn dulls everyone’s mind. That is why even as they pay attention to details, they continually encourage people to challenge the process. The job of a leader is not to be the chief organizer, but the chief disorganizer.

Information taken from a speech by General Colin Powell titled “Outreach to America Program.”




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