How can I be a better leader?

Whenever anyone starts talking about being a good leader we all start visualizing in our mind who we think of when we think of great leaders.

It might be US Presidents like: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or John F. Kennedy.

Other World Leaders like: Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, or Mahatma Gandhi.

It might be Military Leaders like:  Napoleon Bonaparte, George S. Patton, or Colin Powell.

In the business world you might think of: Jack Welch, Lee Iacocca, or Bill Gates

We might even think of religious leaders like: Pope John Paul II, Billy Graham, or Mother Theresa of Calcutta.

There are many others I know, but you get the idea. The logical question most of us ask is:  How am I ever going to be like them? The answer is you may never be as good as them, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be a good leader, or at least a better leader than you are today.

Here is another question I hear often. Are great leaders, like these, born or made? I could say simply yes, but you probably wouldn’t like my answer. The answer is really both. Most people who are born with normal physical and mental abilities can become good, or at least better leaders, if they want to, and put their mind and efforts into developing their abilities. I don’t believe anyone is really a born leader, because I haven’t yet heard of a great leader who was still a baby. Even the youngest of successful leaders went through a learning process to become a great leader. Some people may need more time and help then others, but everyone needs some time. Some people may make more leadership mistakes then others, but believe it or not, even these great people weren’t always good leaders either. They had to learn to be good leaders and many of them did it the hard way, by trial and error. Too bad they never had the benefit of hearing my presentation. Seriously, they learned their leadership traits in the school of hard knocks. While it is a very good school, there is an easier road to good leadership, especially since we can learn from their mistakes and hopefully not repeat them. If I can achieve nothing else but this today, it will be worth all our time and effort.

Let’s start our discussion with an agreeable definition of “what is leadership?” 

Merriam-Webster defines it as:  “the office or position of a leader, the capacity to lead, the act or office or position of a leader.”  Then it defines leader as:  “a person who leads as in a guide, one who leads or directs another’s way, a person who directs another’s conduct or course of life.”

The US Army defines it as:  “The Army defines leadership as influencing people-by providing purpose, direction, and motivation-while operating to accomplish the mission and improving the organization.” (FM-1)

Princeton University defines it as:  the activity of leading; “his leadership inspired the team”; the body of people who lead a group; “the national leadership adopted his plan”; the status of a leader; “they challenged his leadership of the union.”

You can easily see from all of these definitions the common thread in leadership is getting people to do something you want them to do. That sounds easy enough, but in practice it takes a lot of effort to convince, notice I said convince not coerce, people to do what you want them to. Coercion is easy to do. You either do it my way or the highway. Ever heard that one before?  Is this really the kind of leadership we want in our company?  I don’t think so. By doing it this way, you stand to lose a lot of good people, including some really good people who someday may be exactly who you want to put in a leadership position, but you will never know, or have the opportunity, because you forced them out of your organization. This is your fault, not theirs. There are better ways to get people to do what you need them to do short of this rather final tact. It doesn’t mean from time to time you might not have to fire someone, because you might have to, but it shouldn’t be your first action, or your only action.

Many people get management and leadership confused. Here are what some of the same sources we used before have to say about management.

Merriam-Webster:  “the act or art of managing; the judicious use of means to accomplish an end; the collective body of those who manage or direct an enterprise.”  Then it defines manage as:  “ to handle or direct with a degree of skill as in to make and keep compliant; to treat with care, as in he managed his resources carefully; to exercise executive or administrative direction of a business.”

The Princeton University:  “the act of managing something; “he was given overall management of the program”; those in charge of running a business.

I’ve heard many experts say what difference does it make if you are a leader or manager?  As long as you get the results you want, how you got them isn’t important. Well, to some extent I can see what they mean, but in the long run, it will make a difference in the people who are working for you. Remember everyone says their most important asset is their people. So if you really mean it, it does make a difference. The common thread in all of this is: You manage resources, but you lead people. Leading people is what leadership is all about.

Enough with the discussion between leadership and management, it’s making my head hurt. Let’s just agree with being a better leader is what we want to achieve and move on. So we want to be a better leader, so what can we do?  This question has been asked for hundreds of years and has received probably thousands of answers. If I had the perfect answer to this question, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today now would I?  So why am I here, and what do I have to offer to you?  As you saw in my bio I have 29 years of military leadership experience, countless years of study on the subject, and many years of teaching the subject. What I have found out in all this time and effort is there is no one single best answer to this question. This is because each of us is different, and we bring to the table many different experiences, skills, and capabilities. What I’m going to do is give you many of the most widely accepted and agreed upon skills and traits which were processed by many of the successful leaders I started this presentation with, and many others throughout history. If you see some you already process, good on you. If you see some you want to work on improving, great idea. If you see some you don’t agree with, that’s OK too. I have never come across a single leader who processed every one of these, so I guess it means there is hope for all of us.

Ropella is a Leadership Transformation, Executive Search, and Consulting firm. We partner with the Applied Science Foundation for Homeland Security and the University of West Florida to train first responders in cutting-edge leadership methods developed by military and security leaders. First Responder Training courses train first responders in any rank to become the leaders their departments need and their communities rely upon.