Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Fundamentals of Leadership

This is the first in a series of articles about the very basics of leadership. There are literally thousands of books on leadership, and untold numbers of articles on the subject – in magazines, on the net, in newspapers and letters. Each claims to have a special understanding on the subject. But from what I have seen few have talked to that which is in common among all leaders.

From the first time men banded together certain people have stepped forward and provided direction, guidance – Leadership – to the group. What was it that allowed these leaders to develop and sustain those followers? For no leader really acts alone. Rather, he takes those around him and turns them into his followers. What is the essence of that relationship? And once we have identified it, what can we learn from it? That is the purpose of the articles I will be posting over the course of the next year or so.

We will begin with a simple question: What is Leadership?

The question is simple enough, but in the real world the answer gets fuzzy, and quickly. In the simplest sense a leader is someone who guides. But, there are many types of guidance: the high-school kid stocking shelves in the supermarket gives us guidance to find the cereal, the cross-walk guard gives us guidance to slow our car, the accountant gives us guidance on how to fill out our tax return. No one would really consider these figures to be ‘leaders.’ Perhaps more to the point, our priest or minister or rabbi gives us guidance, both spiritual and practical, on how to live a better life. In most cases we may consider, to borrow a phrase from the good book, that he is the ‘shepherd to his flock,’ but still, we often forget religious figures when we try to quantify leadership.

This is unfortunate as there are a good number of exceptional leadership figures among religious communities just within the last 50 years. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev Billy Graham, and Pope John Paul II to name just three men who had and still have huge impact on the course of our nation and the world. As I will discuss later, each of these men, in fact, embodied each of the traits that constitute the fundamentals of leadership.

Nevertheless, the distinction in the type of leadership leaves the question unanswered. Spiritual leadership may be at one and the same time the easiest and most difficult leadership problem; easiest in the sense that we are all searching for spiritual answers and are therefore receptive to well crafted messages; difficult in the sense that true spiritual answers have a difficult task fighting against the material world. That a spiritual leader has no reward to give you – at least in this world – presents an interesting challenge that we will discuss later.

But to return to the question at hand, what is leadership? Certainly the definition offered above doesn’t inform our search a great deal. So, we will refine the definition: Leadership is the ‘building’ of followers to achieve the goal (or goals) of the leader.

The reason I use the term ‘building,’ as will become more clear as we proceed, is that the leader is never finished with his followers, as if once they are ‘on his team’ he doesn’t need to commit any effort to keeping them as committed followers. To the contrary, history has shown that in every case the overwhelming percentage of followers need to be continually reenergized by the leader. Leaders who fail to do that quickly fail as leaders. This is true whether you are running a nation, a large corporation or a small auto-body shop with 4 employees.

But there is some objection to this definition of leadership. What about those jobs and careers where the followers – the workers – are already motivated? For example, policemen, firemen, soldiers and other military: even if their leadership is poor (or even absent or dead) they will continue to ‘execute the mission’ even at great risk to themselves.

What I have found is that in institutions of long duration, established to fulfill a clear need of some group (whether a town, a nation or some other group) derive their goals from the founders of the institution, and build ‘followership’ from the goals and values of the institution. Real leadership in these organizations is not only not usually present at the top of the organization, it’s not really needed. A police force can accomplish its mission and achieve its goal – a safe, secure and still free community – without any senior leadership figure. Instead, the goals are provided by the community and understood by the police officers before they even became policemen. The motivations are provided by the officers with little need for further reinforcement.

This is not to say that these organizations won’t benefit from good leadership at the top, it is only meant to say that the organizations will survive and might even thrive without senior leadership. This is because the senior leaders are not necessary to provide the clarity of goals or the intellect to achieve those goals nor are they necessary to build and maintain the motivation within the ‘rank and file.’ The goals are well known, the missions and tasks are clear, and the ‘followers’ are all motivated. All further leadership responsibilities can be met by middle and junior level leaders. This is true irrespective of the size of the institution, whether a small police force, a volunteer fire department in rural America, or the US Army. Thus we see in the military that the hard leadership challenges, and the best leaders, are found not among the generals and admirals, but among the Gunnery Sergeants and Sergeants First Class, the folks who have to train and motivate the troops to actually execute the mission.

We will return to the question of leadership in large, enduring institutions later in our discussion. But for now, let’s assume this definition of leadership:

Leadership is the ‘building’ of followers to achieve the goal (or goals) of the leader. Now the question is this: how do leaders build followers?