Thursday, October 18, 2012

Teaching Leadership

I saw an article in the newspaper today (actually, I saw it in (on?) my laptop) in which the author asserted as a truth – something that certainly we all know – that leadership can’t be taught, it can only be modeled.  Well, I suppose that, in the sense that we can’t teach anyone to be Yitzhak Perhlman, Michael Jordan, Albert Einstein or Ronald Reagan then we can’t teach someone how to play the violin, or basketball, understand physics or lead a nation.

But, just as we can teach someone, nearly anyone (I exclude myself), to play the violin, or basketball, or understand physics, we can also teach the basics of leadership.  In fact, it has been my experience that the overwhelming majority of good leaders started as mediocre leaders but they applied themselves, they learned from other leaders, from reading, from experience and from introspection and they taught themselves leadership.

Does that mean that most leadership classes produce better leaders?  Probably not.  From what I have seen most leadership classes focus on the secondary characteristics of leadership, focusing either on ‘motivation’ – without explaining what is needed to motivate someone to follow you, or management (as opposed to leadership).  Even the better leadership courses spend an inordinate amount of time discussing successful leaders and hoping that students learn through osmosis, having failed to successfully delineate why various figures were in fact successful leaders.

So, is it possible to teach people how to lead, and to be capable, successful leaders?  Yes it is.  But it must begin with two simple points: The leader must know ‘where’ he is going, and he must know the ‘simple’ secret of building followers.

Where are we going?  All great leaders know ‘where’ they are going, they have a goal, or perhaps two (rarely if ever do they have three – a ‘great’ leader with three overarching goals will not be great), and those goals are crystal clear in their minds.  This goal, also known as the ‘vision’ in some discussions on leadership, is the sine qua non of leadership.  In fact, a clear goal is present – at any level of leadership – whenever we find superior leadership.  Whether we are discussing successfully leading a nation, a corporation, an army or great fleet, or a platoon or a work party cleaning the bilges or the workshift at a McDonalds, exceptional leadership begins with a clear goal.

The converse is also true.  Find an organization in which the boss can’t clearly articulate ‘where we are headed’ and ‘why we are headed there’ and the organization, no matter how well staffed and funded, is adrift and probably headed for the rocks.

So, anyone who wants to lead, and be effective at it, needs to begin with this simple question: what is the goal?

The next step is for the prospective leader to put himself in the shoes of those he wishes to lead.  He needs to ask, and then answer, the question asked by all prospective followers: Why do I want ‘to go there?’  (‘There’ being, of course, the goal the leader has just identified.)

By connecting the needs and wants of prospective followers with the achieving of the goals, the leader builds followers.  The more personal goals he is able to satisfy – from simple economics (‘work for me and I will pay you’) to the satisfaction of emotional goals (notoriety, honors, glory) to self-actualization – the more that the leader can demonstrate the ties between these personal goals and the goal of the organization – the more committed the followers become and the more successful is the organization.

How does a leader connect individual needs and wants to those of the organization?  He must communicate, and he must communicate his passion.  Certainly, there must be a concrete plan, a real step-by-step process to achieve the goal, but the leader must communicate that plan, in words, and in deeds – through conviction and character, what is known as moral courage.  He must practice and he must constantly learn and review his own efforts, work on his shortcomings.  But the essence of leadership, once the goal is clear, is found in 5 skills and traits: planning, communication, moral courage, decision-making, and charisma (which is nothing more than communicating your passion). 

Each one of us comes with many skills and many weaknesses.  Few of us communicate clearly at first, no one knows how to make decisions at first – it is a completely ‘learned’ skill, planning is equally a ‘learned’ skill, and despite what it seems, both moral courage and charisma are traits that can be exercised and improved upon.

Is there more?  Yes, much.  As good leaders will tell you, the process of learning to lead is a life-long study.  Great leaders learn more about leading every day, with every action and every decision.  But it all begins with a goal, and for the followers, a reason to follow that goal.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Cold Shower

Gerry Cheevers, Hall of Fame Goalie and Coach, once famously remarked, when asked why the other team won:
“Roses are Red,
Violets are Blue,
They scored Six,
We scored Two.”

It isn’t exactly Shakespeare, but it is a good example of leadership in a tough situation.  At the root, good leadership requires that the leader – coach, CEO, admiral, president, etc., recognize reality and admit it to those around him.  When things are really going poorly, to stand up and say ‘everything is swell’ is the wrong answer.

There is, of course, the need for positive thinking.  But that is exactly what you get from, for example, the good but tough coaches who, during half-time, remind the team that ‘the other guys scored 4 touchdowns in the first half.’  They then go on to explain - specifically - what needs to be done to turn the game around and win in the second half.

That is why what happened in the first Presidential debate several nights ago.  Whether you are an Obama supporter or Romney supporter, there was little disagreement among viewers that Romney won decisively.  Fine; there are always going to be winners in these situations.  And the other guy can always bounce back and win the next one.  But the response from the Obama campaign, rather than brushing it off and saying: “Well, good show by Romney, but we’ll win the next two rounds,” responded, 24 hours later, with the bizarre comment that “Romney lied.”  Besides sounding childish – which hardly motivates your followers, it fails at the most fundamental levels of leadership.

No coach never goes into the locker room at half time and says “they cheated, you guys are really winning.”  (Perhaps some coach has, but he wasn’t coach for long.)  Leading requires many things, but one of the most important qualities is ability to see clearly the world around you, and the honesty, the integrity, to admit it when you have failed at something.  Problem solving, whether at Alcoholics Anonymous or in the Boardroom, or anywhere in between, begins with recognizing that you have a real problem and then understanding the nature and extent of that problem.

It doesn’t matter what you are doing: political debate, football game, introduction of a new product line, opening a new factory, running a new ad campaign, or a thousand other events – if you get it wrong you need to recognize that fact, acknowledge that fact and then assess what went wrong and why and then work to fix it.  Nearly any problem can be turned around.  But failing to accept that you have even made a mistake is often ‘fatal’ to virtually any enterprise.  Every leader – new or grizzled, young or old – must be willing to accept the ‘cold shower’ of reality, recognize where they have made a mistake, and using that knowledge, adjust their efforts and move on.  It is one of the key foundation stones of any success.