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Are You a Leader

December 1, 1999
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When the effective leader is finished with his work, the people say it happened naturally."
Lao-Tzu,
Chinese philosopher
6th century, B.C.

There have been more articles and books written about leadership than any other topic. Everyone wants to know how to be a leader or what makes a great leader. Models are most commonly drawn from politics, the military, sports and business. The basic argument is whether leadership is an inherent trait or a learned skill. Theories have been built around both approaches. While forests have been devastated for paper on which to print these beliefs, at the end of the day, the question is still unresolved.

It often falls to human resource development departments to deliver a leadership course. The good news is there are a ton of them on the market. They run from esoteric models to outdoor team survival treks. The bad news is it's difficult to pick the right one. One of the fundamental principles about any learning is that the farther the experience is from the realities in which the learning will have to be applied, the less chance there is for application.

This is the fallacy of college classroom surveys and outdoor programs. College students' views of a given case hardly equate with what will happen when they get into the real world. Outdoor programs appeal to the young and fit and are a true pain in the back to others. And when that group gets back to reality, often called the job, there's no research that supports building a raft or walking a tightrope develops a transferable business skill. It's one thing to be cooperative in a game, and another when your career or bonus is on the line.

So, how do we develop leadership skills? After the bruises and blisters have healed what shall we look for, what shall we expect? I think there are places to look and ways to develop leadership skills.

The first place to look for leadership is in the mirror. Do you want to be a leader of anything? Are you compelled to grab a group and inspire them to reach great achievements? Or are you content to be a follower? There's nothing wrong with being a good follower—without one there wouldn't be a leader.

However, if you choose to let someone else take the lead, then you shouldn't sit back and criticize the way they do it. If you aren't involved in helping the leader, then you have no right to criticize. Someone once said, "There are two types of people: those who do something and those who sit on the sidelines and criticize. So join the first group where there's less competition."

Let s assume that you seek some degree of leadership. You might only want to lead a small group. That's usually where it starts. If this is your case, what do you have to do? Where do you want to take the group? What is your goal? It simply could be mobilizing a family group to stop playing around and come to dinner. My wife s niece is a natural leader. At five feet tall and 95 pounds, she can organize 30 kids and adults to do anything in about two nanoseconds. You don t mess with Dina!

If your ambition is to lead a section or a department, you need a compelling idea to sell the group. After the group is moving down the track, you prepare others in the organization for your vision. You have to persuade them to help your group or to support your vision. Leadership is all about grasping the situation and persuading people to deal with it.

I've had the great pleasure of working with a number of true leaders during my naval service and my business career. Upon reflection, I found that a half dozen factors made them effective. The first and absolutely most essential characteristic is integrity. Persons who lack integrity often can lead good people for a time, but the end result is always disastrous. Second is the ability to communicate a clear vision of what must be and why. Vision implies risks and the ability to manage risk is essential in an effective leader.

The next two factors are personality traits. One is the insight to see beyond the obvious; to pick out the pitfalls and promises from what they see before them. The other is compassion for people. Truly great leaders know how to balance human and financial considerations. The last factor is the courage to make tough decisions.

Ram Charan and Geoffrey Colvin studied the failure patterns of high profile CEOs and published their findings in "Why CEOs Fail," an article in the June 21, 1999, issue of Fortune. The key issue was their inability to pick the right people to execute their strategic plan and the related failure to fix people problems in time. When I headed a computer company s HR function, I tracked the reason for failure of top people over a seven-year period. Like Charan and Colvin, in every case I found that people skills were their downfall. Great ideas are fine, but effective leaders know how to manage people.

How about you? Do you have the knowledge, skill and savvy to be a leader? As Lee Iacocca, former CEO of Chrysler said, "Lead, follow, or get out of the way!"


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