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Learning to Lead

(March 2002) posted on Sun Apr 07, 2002

Discover what skills are needed to be an effective leader.


By Mark Goodridge

Recent news of the Enron debacle and the events of September 11 have led me to reflect on the importance of leadership as opposed to management. Generally, when we talk about running a business, we use the term "management." In the 30 years that I've been reading (and writing) books and articles about business, it seems the focus of each has been almost exclusively on some aspect of management. Usually, the skills we equate with management are all we need to run a business successfully. But sometimes, management alone is not enough. For a business to survive and grow, something more than managerial skills is generally necessary. And that something is effective leadership. I've spent most of my adult life mastering the skills required to be an effective manager. Fortunately, at the beginning of my career, I took a short, thorough course in leadership from the greatest of all educational establishments, the US Army. The training program was brief but intense, and the lessons I learned have proved useful ever since. Most of this article will cover the standard precepts on leadership taught by the military services. I've translated the military jargon into civilian English, but the concepts will be familiar to any of you with military training. And why am I using the US Army's theories on leadership? Because no institution has made a more thorough study of what leadership is, why you need it, and how to obtain and employ it. But leadership is more than a military skill--its principles work just as well in team sports, business, religion, education, and all other group endeavors. What is leadership? Leadership is the art of influencing and directing people in such a way as to obtain their willing obedience, confidence, respect, and loyal cooperation in order to achieve goals. Although management and leadership are often thought of as overlapping skills, they are not identical. Good managers may be lackingin leadership, and good leaders may be poor managers. The best way I can think of to explain the difference between leadership and management is to use an ocean-liner analogy. A huge ocean liner has a crew of hundreds of men and women who run the engines, maintain and repair the machinery, feed everyone on board, steer the ship, and perform other special functions. Some crew members are promoted to positions that require them to manage and supervise other crew. Above the crew and crew managers is the captain. Most of the time, the captain acts as a manager. However, the captain must also be a leader. The captain has to make crucial, sometimes life-and-death, decisions during times of crisis. Consider, for example, an oncoming hurricane. The captain must consider everything he or she knows about the ship, the crew, and the hurricane, then make a decision--the correct decision--and make it at the right time. Then the captain must steer the crew so that the decision will be put into effect correctly. That is leadership. What are the traits of an effective leader? Leadership is an individual activity. Committees can manage, but only individuals can lead. To be an effective leader, the following attributes are ones you should master: * Bearing Appearance counts for perhaps more than it should, but to be a leader, it's important to look like one. Leaders create a favorable impression in appearance and conduct. * Courage Courage is both physical and moral. Moral courage is usually more often needed in business. A leader recognizes fear or danger or criticism, but has the courage to meet danger or opposition calmly and firmly. * Decisiveness Leaders must be able to make decisions promptly, then express them in a clear and forceful manner. * Dependability Both supervisors and subordinates must be able to rely on a leader and have confidence that the leader will do the job correctly. * Endurance Leaders need both mental and physical stamina. * Enthusiasm Leaders display exuberance about their job and a positive attitude about their business. * Initiative Anybody can lock the barn door after the horses are in the neighbor's corn, but a good leader will take the initiative to get the door locked before the horses get out. * Integrity Employees must have confidence in a leader's honesty and good moral character. * Judgement A good leader can make sound decisions, especially when under stress. A good leader weighs the facts, formulates possible solutions to a problem, then selects the correct answer. * Justice Leaders often have to make decisions that may have a negative impact on the people they work with. If a leader is viewed as a fair person, his or her decisions will be accepted. * Knowledge Leaders have a thorough understanding of the technology and techniques needed to perform their job and an equally thorough understanding of the people they supervise. * Loyalty Leaders are loyal to their company, supervisors, and subordinates. * Tact Leaders do their job without annoying people. * Unselfishness Leaders look after the welfare of others before taking care of their own needs. Not every leader has all of the qualities listed above, and no leader has mastered every single one of them. However, good leaders have mastered most of them. How do you lead? Leadership is much more than a set of personal qualities. The essence of leadership is doing. What does this "doing" actually involve? See the list below to find out: * Know your job. Master the technology and the organizational skills necessary to complete your tasks. * Know yourself. You must understand your strengths and weaknesses and constantly try to improve yourself. * Know your employees. Know the people who work for you--their names, problems, hopes, and goals. Look out for their welfare before your own. * Keep your employees informed. Most of your employees can handle any bad news as long as it's delivered promptly, completely, and from a reliable source. If you don't keep employees informed, one small rumor can shut down your whole operation. * Set a good example. If you initiate an energy-conservation program, don't undo your efforts by forgetting to turn off your own office lights. * Assign tasks the right way. When assigning a task to an individual or group, make sure that they understand your instructions. Also, make sure they understand that someone is responsible for supervising the work and that you will check to make sure that the work was done correctly. * Train your people to work as a team. The myth of the inspired, creative loner has no place in business. Business is a collaborative effort. Nine baseball players who have been trained to play together as a team will out-perform the best all-star team ever assembled. * Be a good decision maker. All the leadership skills are worthless if you can't pull the trigger. You must be able to make sound decisions and make them at the right time. * Learn to delegate. Learn to delegate some tasks to your subordinates. Prepare them to handle those tasks by developing a sense of responsibility among the people you supervise. * Do what you do well. A good leader will not lead his men off a cliff, but will do everything possible to avoid costly disasters. * Step to the front of the line. No one leads from the back of the pack. A good leader will volunteer to be in charge. Such a person will look for opportunities to lead and seek responsibility--not only when things go right, but also when things go wrong. How can you tell if your business has effective leadership? Well-led businesses are easy to spot. All it takes is a walk through the plant and conversations with a few employees to get a pretty good estimation of the state of leadership in a business. Employees who work in a well-led business have good morale and a good attitude about themselves and their surroundings. They're cheerful and they cheer other people up. They have pride and enthusiasm in the work they do and the business that they are a part of. They are good at their jobs and have the skills necessary to do superior work. Beyond the way leadership is reflected in individual employees, well-led businesses also demonstrate good discipline. Jobs are completed promptly and people don't wait to be told to do tasks that obviously need to be done. A well-led business is one that will accomplish any job that it has been organized, equipped, and trained to handle, and it will do so in the shortest possible time, with the least expenditure of resources and the least confusion. Why do you need leadership? Handling the ordinary, day-to-day routine of business efficiently and economically is what management is all about, and good management is all you need most of the time. But life is not routine and predictable, and neither is business. If your business is to survive, you must be prepared to lead it, not just manage it, through recessions, wars, floods, fires, offshore competition, changes in markets and technology, terrorist attacks, and all the other foreseen and unforeseen hazards of modern life. Good leadership will guide a business through crises while continuing to set goals that enable the business to thrive.

 


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