Eighteen Lessons on Leadership

Every one of us has leadership roles to assume. Wherever we are leaders, the position, by its very name, demands we provide the best influence possible for others. But how do we learn to be a leader? General Colin Powell has written eloquently on his view of leadership in “A Leadership Primer.” While his views are obviously from a military perspective, the lessons he has learned have direct and everyday application to the work we do daily for our organizations and our community. I challenge each of you to look at these eighteen lessons on leadership and consider just how they apply to your office, your professional organization, or any other community situation.

Lesson 1

Being responsible sometimes means making people mad at you. Good leadership involves responsibility to the welfare of the group, which means that some people will get angry at your actions and decisions. Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity and you’ll avoid the tough decisions.

Lesson 2

The day soldiers (employees/colleagues) stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or have concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.

Lesson 3

Don’t be buffaloed by experts and elites. Experts often posses more data than judgment. Elites can become so inbred that they produce hemophiliacs who bleed to death as soon as they are nicked by the real world. Policies that emanate from ivory towers often have an adverse impact on the real people out in the field who are fighting the wars or bringing in the revenues. Real leaders are vigilant, and combative, in the face of these trends.

Lesson 4

Don’t be afraid to challenge the pros, even in their own backyard. Learn from the pros, observe them, seek them out as mentors but remember that even the pros may have leveled out in terms of learning and skills. Sometimes even the pros become complacent and lazy.

Lesson 5

Never neglect details. When everyone’s mind is dulled or distracted, the leader must be doubly vigilant. Strategy equals execution. All the great ideas in the world are worthless if they can’t be implemented rapidly and efficiently. Good leaders delegate and empower others liberally, but they also pay attention to details, every day.

Lesson 6

You don’t know what you can get away with until you try. You know the expression “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission?” Well it’s true. Good leaders don’t wait for official blessing to try things out. They’re prudent, not reckless. But they also realize a fact of life in most organizations: If you ask enough people for permission, you’ll inevitably come to the person who believes his/her job is to say “no” and be dissuaded from trying something new. So the moral is, don’t ask.

Lesson 7

Keep looking below surface appearances. Don’t shrink from doing so just because you might not like what you find. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the slogan of the complacent, the arrogant or the scared. It’s a mindset that assumes (or hopes) that today’s realities will continue tomorrow in a tidy linear and predictable fashion. Pure fantasy.

Lesson 8

Organization doesn’t really accomplish anything. Plans don’t accomplish anything, either. Theories of management don’t much matter. Endeavors succeed or fail because of the people involved. Only by attracting the best people will you accomplish great deeds.

Lesson 9

Organization charts and fancy titles count for next to nothing. They are frozen, anachronistic photos in a workplace that ought to be as dynamic as the external workplace around you. If people really followed organization charts, most companies would collapse. In well-run organizations, titles are also pretty meaningless.

Lesson 10

Never let your ego get so close to your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it. Too often, people who cling to familiar turf and job descriptions stifle change. One reason that even large organizations wither is that managers won’t challenge old, comfortable ways of doing things. But real leaders understand that, nowadays, every one of our jobs is becoming obsolete.

Lesson 11

Fit no stereotypes. Don’t chase the latest management fads. The situation dictates which approach best accomplishes the team’s mission. Flitting from fad to fad creates team confusion, reduces the leader’s credibility and drains organizational effectiveness. Sometimes an unapologetic directive is more appropriate than participatory discussion.

Lesson 12

Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier. The ripple effect of a leader’s enthusiasm and optimism is awesome. So is the negative impact of cynicism and pessimism. Spare me the litany of the “realist” and give me the unrealistic aspirations of the optimist any day.

Lesson 13

Powell rules for picking people say: Look for intelligence and judgment and, most critically, the ability to anticipate. Also look for loyalty, integrity, a high-energy drive, a balanced ego, and the determination to get things done.

Lesson 14 (Borrowed by Powell from Michael Korda)

Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand. They articulate vivid overarching goals and values, which they use to drive daily behaviors and choices among competing alternatives. The result is clarity of purpose, credibility of leadership, and integrity in organization.

Lesson 15

Part I: use the formula P=40 to 70, in which P stands for the probability of success and the numbers stand for the percentage of information acquired. Part II: Once the information is in the 40 to 70 range, go with your gut. Powell’s advice is don’t take action if you have only enough information to give you a less than 40% chance of being right, but don’t wait until you have enough facts to be 100% sure because by then it is almost always too late. Procrastination in the name of reducing risk is actually an increased risk.

Lesson 16

The commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon is always wrong, unless proved otherwise. Too often the reverse defines corporate culture. Shift the power and the financial accountability to the folks who are bringing in the beans, not to the ones who are counting or analyzing them.

Lesson 17

Have fun in your command. Don’t always run at a breakneck pace. Take leave when you’ve earned it and spend time with your family. Corollary: Surround yourself with people who take their work seriously, but not themselves, those who work hard and play hard. Spare me the grim workaholic or the pompous pretentious “professional,” I’ll help them find work with my competitor. Lesson 18

Harry Truman was right. Whether you’re the CEO or the temporary head of a project team, the buck stops here. You can encourage participative management and bottom-up employee involvement but ultimately, the essence of leadership is the willingness to make the tough, unambiguous choices that will have an impact of the fate of the organization. I’ve seen too many non-leaders flinch from this responsibility. Even as you create an informal, open, collaborative corporate culture, prepare to be lonely.

Do you recognize people you know? Do you recognize people you wish you knew? How about your own management and leadership style? Whether you are currently the leader of a large development office or wish to be one someday, there are lessons here for each of us.

Dr. Ned Van Maanen, CFRE, is the Executive Director of the Houston and Southeast Texas chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. This article originally appeared in “Developments,” the bulletin of the Greater Houston chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

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