Ambassador Charles A. Ray
Leadership is more important today than ever before in our history. The rapid pace of change in technology, economics and a whole host of other factors, globalization, changing social expectations, and changing demographics of the work force place greater than ever demands on leaders.
I have a personal theory of leadership that is somewhat controversial and not exactly accepted by many of the academically oriented types: I believe that ANYONE can be a leader, but many are afraid to take the plunge, or just plain don’t want to. Effective leadership, in my humble opinion, is within the grasp of the average person, if he or she has the desire. Here is the controversial part – great leaders are not really born. They are, in my view, merely competent, effective leaders who have faced a significant crisis and succeeded. We tend to view great leaders on a pedestal because of their success, and the average person considers them to have gone beyond our reach. I think instead, we need to see them as ordinary people who have successfully responded to extraordinary challenges.
Let’s take an historical example. This individual’s business failed, then, the following year he lost a bid for the state legislature. Two years after that his sweetheart died and he suffered a nervous breakdown. Four years after recovering from the breakdown, he ran again for Congress and, yes, lost again, then tried again and lost again. He failed in a run for the US Senate and was rebuffed when he wanted to run for vice President. Afterwards, he made one final run for the Senate and yes, lost again. Finally, though, in 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. Lincoln is described as a "great" leader, a title that he himself would probably disagree with. Reading his biography, one could see an effective, very determined person who set a goal and just never gave up. In my view, that is the essence of Lincoln (that and his ability as an orator), not just his success in keeping the Union together.
"Great" leaders are also a product of their time. In today’s media visual media oriented world, a gangly, not exactly photogenic person like "Honest Abe" would probably not fare too well in the polls.
As leaders and managers of today, it is our job to identify tomorrow’s Abraham Lincolns and nurture them.
I learned most of what I know about leadership from my grandmother, a woman who had very little formal education. Notwithstanding her lack of formal education, she was the smartest person I know. Here are some of the principles she taught me, that have shaped and guided me throughout my career:
The only way to finish a job is to get started. Procrastination and timidity are surefire routes to failure. Falling on your face is okay as long as you get up again and keep moving forward.
Start reading a book on page one. Know what the job requires and what steps will get you from where you are to where you want to be.
Know every hen in the hen house. Know the people in your organization, their strengths and weaknesses. Know also the environment in which your organization has to operate.
Kiss ‘em on the front porch, spank ‘em in the woodshed. Be ever mindful of the feelings of others. Nothing can destroy the morale of an entire organization faster than the leader who berates subordinates in public. Public praise, on the other hand, is one of the cheapest and most effective motivators.
Two horses can pull a heavier load than one horse can. A leader has to be a team builder.
Your reputation is what you show to others in the light – character is what you show yourself in the dark of night. Honesty and integrity are the most important traits of effective leadership. No matter how technically proficient or politically connected you are, if you lack honesty you will eventually find yourself in the face down, in the middle of the road with a truck coming position – failure, failure, failure.
What you do speaks louder than what you say. Communication is key to getting people to do what you want. It is important, however, to make sure you verbal and written messages are supported by your actions. This is related to honesty, but goes beyond that. It is not necessary to lie to undermine your message. As an example, a colleague told mw of a boss he had who published an "open door" policy, but then put his desk in a secluded corner of the office where it could not be easily seen from the door, then put large plants in front of it, further blocking the view. He then capped it off by keeping his door closed and requiring people to get an appointment with his secretary before seeing him. What do you think employees thought about the sincerity of his "open door" policy?
You have to get into the water if you want to learn how to swim. Leaders, if they are to succeed, must be willing to take risks. Furthermore, they should encourage and reward risk taking in the organization.
I could go on and on, but I think the point is clear. Leaders are made, not really born – well we’re all born, but I don’t buy the theory of the "born" leader. Leadership is, like swimming, something you learn. Some learn better and faster than others, but all can learn if they have the desire. Leaders don’t really come from West Point or Harvard Business School. They learn leadership at the knees of their grand parents, mothers, fathers, and uncles. What we as leaders need to do is help them see that and using the principles we learned growing up, help them find their path to effective leadership.
(This is adapted from a speech to a luncheon of the Thursday Luncheon Group, a U.S. Department of State mentoring group, on September 12, 2008, in Washington, DC.)