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Simple But Not Easy

Though being a good leader is hard work, the components are simply common-sense.

03 October 2007
In preparation to sell our house, our real estate agent made us thin out our bookshelves. This was no small feat. We have 20’ ceilings in our living room, with built-in book shelves that require a ladder to reach the top. After packing up only half the books we had nearly 40 boxes to take to storage. The problem was that I packed based on size, not based on which books I would want while waiting for our house to sell. But honestly, how does one know which books one will need until one needs them?
 
I have been kvetching incessantly about the missing books and I had a particularly frustrating moment today when I wanted my leadership books to reference pursuant to writing a magazine article on leadership that is due tomorrow.
 
My better (more practical, less flappable) half suggested that perhaps I was on a toot about nothing. I was told to go upstairs and write what I know, and that rifling through books is my favorite mode of procrastination (which is correct).
 
So I sat in front of the computer and thought about the good leaders I’ve known, and the ones who couldn’t lead anyone out of a paper bag. I thought of times I have been pleased with my own leadership and times when I knew I’d blown it. And I realized that though being a good leader is hard work, the components are simply common-sense.
 
A good leader is a student. Of what? Of whatever matters. They are students of their followers, they actively seek teachers, they demonstrate urgency about building expertise. They recognize the importance of being tested, and of submitting to the process of learning. They are not dilettantes – their pursuit of knowledge is serious, persistent, and motivated.
A good leader has mastery. They know their subject matter inside and out, and they never let that knowledge become stale or dated. When they are ready to let their competency slide, they switch fields or retire.
 
A good leader works harder than everyone else. They respect that the role is a responsibility, not a right, and they work hard to earn it every day.
 
Leadership requires an individual to be confronted with diverse and numerous challenges simultaneously. Therefore, a good leader must live by a clear value system in order to be consistent.
 
A good leader is consistent.
 
A good leader never tries to pretend they are not the leader. The only two reasons I can think of that people do this are gutlessness or a misguided notion that it’s egotistical to acknowledge their leadership, and neither reason is particularly flattering.
 
A good leader is direct, and is more concerned with being effective than with being popular. The best leaders I have ever had have been unflinching in their criticism of me and extremely demanding of my performance. I have been lucky to have those people in my life. A good leader respects their followers by challenging them tirelessly.
 
Jim Collins defines a Level 5 Leader as someone who is humble. I agree with his description of humility, and I’ve also seen strangely distorted interpretations of it. This humility has to do with knowing there is always something new to learn, and that it can be learned from anyone. This humility has to do with recognizing that anyone can make a mistake, and that the leader is in the best position of all to make more and bigger mistakes, because they make more and bigger decisions. This humility has to do with being able to acknowledge and learn from mistakes, which requires being vulnerable. But good grief – this humility is not about being free of ego! It takes a lot of ego to take a position of significant responsibility. Having a huge amount of self confidence is necessary to being a good leader, and self confidence and humility are not mutually exclusive. If your ego is healthy enough, you can channel it away from self-interest and into the needs of the organization. A weak ego will spend all its time protecting its flanks out of fear and self-doubt. So a good leader has a strong and healthy ego and focuses their energy on doing what is good for the organization – not their own self-interest.
 
A good leader understands that it is their responsibility to make decisions, and they make them – despite the risk, despite the fact that nobody else really wants to make the decisions but will happily criticize them in hind-sight.
 
A good leader has the ability to put people at ease, establish confidence, and inspire motivation. Is this charisma? Sometimes, but not always. Very low-key people can achieve this, and very high profile people can miss the mark. This type of inspiration is not personality dependent, but it is people-centric. Good leaders really dig people in general, and their people in specific.
 
Good leaders are good teachers. They are not only voracious about learning, they are also ardent about sharing what they know and developing others. Why? Well what the hell – why not?
 
Finally, a good leader is human. They know it, they don’t pretend to be otherwise, and they also know that a certain percentage of their peers and followers won’t permit it. So they strive to live up to unrealistic expectations every day, and are healthy enough to be kind to themselves regardless.
 
A leader can be good – can be great – without demonstrating all of these qualities every day. But they are distinguished by the fact that when they fail, they relentlessly pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and resolve to do better.
 
There are a lot of people out there in positions of leadership who neither demonstrate these characteristics nor the resolve to master them. It would be better if we would recognize them for what they are. They are authorities. An authority can be handed their title and the deference that goes with it. A leader only gets the title – and the commensurate respect – by working for it.
 
Every. Single. Day.
 
(c) 2007, Andrea M. Hill
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