One of the best and funniest questions I think I have ever had posed to me was during an interview for a College President position. The question—so, what’s your leadership style? I could not hide the smile that accompanied my answer—“I’m sorry, I am afraid I do not understand your question.” The interviewing committee seemed shocked. After all, it was a straightforward question, and this is a retired Marine Officer. Clearly he understands the question.
Leadership is a subtle skill that is devilishly difficult. It is intangible and difficult to measure. Leadership has a quality that stems from a number factors: the ability to provide a clear vision, the ability to control and direct, self-confidence, expert knowledge, and a sense of responsibility, to name a few. There is no one style of leadership. Organizations are made up of people. It is rare that what one person requires to be led properly is what another person in the same organization requires. Some employees are the proverbial self-starters, needing little day to day, hour to hour guidance. Others require constant monitoring. Each may be excellent employees but in need different styles of leadership. Those in leadership positions also have a responsibility to provide leadership to their customers, vendors and board of directors; I will address those leadership responsibilities in a future writing.
Am I saying that to be a leader one must be all things to all people? Yes, and no, now there is a clear as mud answer. Yes, in respect that the leader is responsible for everything that happens in the organization or fails to happen, and no, in respect that the leader should not twist in the wind like a weather vane in an effort to coax employees to their best efforts. Here, are a few tips that will be useful for the seasoned executive and the newest entrant to the leadership world: provide a clear and shared vision for the organizations future, model, and be fair, firm, and consistent.
Provide a Clear and Shared Vision
A clear and shared vision motivates and rallies the work force. A clear vision is the north seeking arrow of the organization. A shared vision generates motivation and commitment. It is not simply top down driven but includes members from various levels of the organization in its development. By the very nature of the development, the vision has rapid buy-in from employees who put the vision into action. A good friend, a CEO of a successful IT firm, and I had an interesting conversation over a recent lunch engagement. He voiced an observation, that there is a growing number of CEO’s he is working with that lack vision. He went on to point out that these new CEO’s seem happy only to keep their respective organizations afloat. This immediately brought to mind Yahoo’s former CEO Carol Bartz; one of the noted reasons for her departure from Yahoo was her lack of providing a clear vision for the future of the organization.
When I speak of modeling, I’m saying set the standard. Integrity, having the courage to do what is right because, well, it is right. Sounds simple, it clearly is not. The latest departure of, yet another, Yahoo executive, Scott Thompson ostensibly a health issue but seems more like the cloud hanging over his head from a lie found in his resume forced him out. Modeling is all about the understanding that employees look to their leadership, at all levels, to walk the talk, not push the boundaries of ethics because it is legal. Rather to stay within the boundaries because it is just.
Fair, Firm, and Consistent
The term fair, firm, and consistent I first heard as a young Marine Lieutenant. It was rested out in simple terms because it is such a difficult thing to do. Fair, I have heard is a relative term. No, it is not. Fair—treat everyone the same. Firm—hold your ground. Right is right and no declaration is required. Wrong, is wrong; admit it and move on. Consistent—Leaders do not have the luxury of coming in one day and being happy as a lark and the next day mean as a snake. No one cares that the leader may have had a lousy evening. It does not matter. Each employee deserves to be treated in a fair and consistent fashion, regardless of the perception of being the best or worst employee. What matters is that the leader projects a consistent picture of calm, professional leadership to your employees.
While commanding a Marine Battalion, I was approached by one of my subordinate commanders who wanted me to exercise my Non-Judicial Punishment authority over a young Marine who had broken on of the rules of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Each level of command carries with it differing levels of punishment. Sending the young transgressor to my level indicated a serious offense. The crime—the Marine was absent without leave (AWOL). My immediate thought was that the young man had been AWOL for an extended period of time 30 days at least. Imagine my surprise he was gone for 5 days. As the story went on, it turned out that the young man was not one that would be called the best in the unit. Indeed, he was one that would not be missed when his enlistment was over. I asked the subordinate commander, was he certain this is the tact he wanted to take. He indicated it was. I reminded him of the precedence he was about to set in his unit and to think this level of punishment through. The details are as follows—the young Marine was on authorized leave. He returned from his leave early. The Marine was told to go home by the unit’s Company Gunnery Sergeant. That he was not needed.
That is what the young man did. He went home. At the end of the week, someone finally noted they had not seen the young man for the entire week. The commander wanted to teach this Marine a lesson he would not soon forget. For the last time, I reminded the young officer of the precedence he was about to set. He understood but wanted to move forward. I agreed. I indicated I would need to first hold punishment on the immediate supervisor of the Marine. The Company First Sergeant would need to be punished by me also. Finally, I would need to place a letter of reprimand on the officer himself. He looked at me completely dumbfounded. I explained that indeed a great injustice was done requiring my personal attention. The matter at hand was a series of false reports. Each day the young Marine in question was reported as present. I asked where was the young Marine when they realized he was not at work. He was at home where he was told to be.
The subordinate commander dropped the charge and received the best butt-chewing I could give. The young Marine did face the unit Sergeant Major as did the First Sergeant and the immediate supervisor of the young Marine.
There is no one leadership style. The best leaders understand that many they lead may need a little guidance some may require more. The singularly best leaders know that they lead by providing their organization with a clear and shared vision. They provide a model worthy of emulation; they are fair, firm and consistent in leading their employees. These tips are not rocket science. Yet, I could fill a book with example after example of leaders who have a particular style and stick to it no matter what and find themselves boxed in a corner for doing so, or worse—out of a job.