Leadership is as vague as it is ubiquitous. We can easily define the word and most people readily understand the concept. But we don’t know how someone becomes a good leader. There are eight major leadership theories that profess a varied number of reasons someone becomes a leader. And these break down into even smaller subsets under each of the eight theories. They postulate not only why someone becomes a leader, but also the style in which they lead. It could even be included in the universal quandary of nature versus nurture. But even the greatest minds cannot agree on how good leaders come into existence or are able to argue one style over the success of another. And though I have often taken an introspective look at my life, I cannot with certainty say why I have always gravitated to a leadership role.

I have, in my widely varied military, professional, and personal life, been a leader. And, at the same time a follower. Only in my personal life have I ever had the opportunity to sit at the top of the chain of command, answering to no one. And even that happened rarely. I have always had a commanding officer, boss, spouse, etc., that was leading me and granting me the authority and position to lead others. And with this diametric view of leadership, seeing it from both sides, I cannot say how the leaders I most admired and respected, became the leaders they are. I can only say when you have a good one, you know it; and when you have a bad one, you know it just as assuredly.

And with leadership comes great responsibility. Whether it be the lives of your fellow service members or the fiscal life of a company, there are always great stakes in the decisions you make as a leader. And good leaders shoulder these responsibilities without complaint. They make the tough decisions and alone must bear any negative results. Failure is not a team sport. Conversely, they never revel in their success as an individual accomplishment. A good leader will always defer any success to the team he leads. Without them and their efforts, the mission would surely fail despite any great leadership on their part.

I didn’t attend leadership classes, and no one has ever sat me down and taught me leadership from a lesson plan. I learned to be a leader by emulating the traits and behaviors of the great leaders in my own life. Those shining examples of good leadership leave their marks on the people they lead. There are several military and professional leaders in my life I thought were great leaders and they consistently impacted my own leadership style in a ‘what would they do’ kind of way. They were tough and demanding at times, but they are all fondly remembered and greatly respected. That is where I learned. Not in a leadership class, but by submitting to another’s authority and being led by some of the best. Education through osmosis, you could say. This willingness and desire to carry the mantle of leadership has always served me well. No matter what the situation, those skills always kept me on an upwardly mobile career path. I can happily start at the bottom rung of any ladder, because I know I can climb from there.

But for all its intricacies and nuances, being a good leader is much easier to measure. It falls to two simple metrics for analysis. The first, and arguably most important, is success. That’s not to say that even the greatest leaders do not fail at times, no matter how valiantly they led. But rather to say, that they are successful most often. Being a great leader, while consistently being unsuccessful in the completion of your goals, is about as much an honor as it sounds. And I promise you, whether it be a commanding officer or an employer, when you are successful, they view your leadership skills in broader strokes and are much less concerned about the theories or your style. The only other real measure of a leader is the respect and dedication the team have for their captain, and the trust they place in them. Asking people to do hard things, often for little reward; getting people to buy-in to a new system or way of thinking; pushing people to shatter their own perceived limitations; creating a team from a list of individuals, none of these are easy tasks. And contrary to what some may think, it is uniquely rare that someone follows another blindly. The followers must trust their leader, secure in the knowledge that he will take care of them and provide the guidance and resources to be successful as a group. Any admiration stems from those times where the leader accepts all fault and blame for failure, allowing it to fall only on their shoulders. And the times of success, when the honorifics and credit are given to the team members, rather than the misplaced ego of their leader.

We can measure leadership but are left quite vague as to how you find or make a good leader. Some leadership theories point to common traits of great leaders. And it is true many great leaders do share some specific traits, but there are scores of other people who have the same traits and either shun leading or just are not good at it. In the military, I was told to focus on two things when I was put in a leadership position. Your mission and your men (this term is appropriately used without bias in the military to represent any person of any gender under your command, please do not take offense).

And every day since, I have used those two things as the driving force behind any decision I made as a leader. As discussed, success is an expectation when your given a task and the authority to pursue it. It may elude you at times for any number of reasons. But if you win a lot more than you lose, it will represent being a good leader, and with the passing of any accolades onto the team, they shine in the light of any success too. But not hoarding the success, to boost your own ego or career as a leader, is paramount in making success worthwhile to either team member or leader.

The second tenet is looking out for the team members. In the military, as my rank and authority grew, so did the amenities of my military lifestyle. My rank afforded me certain liberties, conveniences, or accommodations. They were part of the employee retention program, if you will. And when resources and conditions allowed, I would enjoy these hard-earned benefits of good work and tireless dedication. But when resources are not abundant, it is all about the team members first. When food is available, team members eat first, if there is then time and/or resources, the leader will eat. If the team is taking a break, the leader rests last and returns first. You must consistently put the needs of your ‘troops’ before your own. You must lead by example in every way. You must work the hardest. You must see to the teams every need before contemplating your own. A team member must know that the leader would never ask anything of them he would not ask of himself. This is where trust and devotion are built. Done correctly and consistently, your team will follow you to the ends of the earth.

These two simple tenets have been the hallmark of every great leader I have served under in both my military and professional careers. They are hard to do sometimes, but unmistakable and admired when recognized by others. In the shortest version, those two traits are required of a great leader.

So, leadership is mysterious in its origins and behavior, but leadership is easily measured and weighed. We also know there are two very specific traits we would expect to see in any good leader, ‘the mission and the men’.

But in the political arena, where we by choice elect persons to be our very definition of good leaders, and place them in positions of great authority, none of the traits are required nor measures employed. We can argue partisan platforms and rhetoric all day. But you can’t argue good leadership. Regardless of your political affiliation, I would recommend you look for certain things in your next leader at any level of governance.

  •  Success

Does your prospective leader have a track record of success? Not financial success, as old money is just old money, but of success as a leader. And not the promises of things to be done, but the things already accomplished, the difficulties faced and solved. If some history of success cannot be found for a leader, regardless of your alignment with their policies or beliefs, their success will remain just a hopeful wish.

  •  Mission

Does your prospective leader have a clear understanding of what the mission is? Can you expect them to apply their authority and resources as a good steward of power? Can you expect them to remain focused on the mission and put aside any personal wants or entitlements? Will they do what it takes, no matter how hard or politically perilous it may be? Will they be the example to all those that serve under them?

  •  Men

Does your next leader put the people they serve before themselves? Do they do without until everyone else’s needs have been met? Do they shoulder the burden of failure or point fingers and make excuses? Do they recognize the people they lead as the true architects of any success? Do they eschew the praise to lift up others?

I know this is a rare earth kind of find. The leader we need for the world we live in today. But if we are ever to find the right one, we must apply the known concepts of what leadership is, how it can be measured, and the crystal ball of who may be a good one. I will settle for good. ‘Great’ seems unattainable anymore.

One Response to “Leadership”
  1. As true as this all is, the ones who drank the kool-aid are unable to hear it! Just sayin’!

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