Friday, May 22, 2009

Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way.

Leadership is a very unusual subject. Thousands of books have been written on it. Millions of speeches and talks have been given about it.


Leadership is one of those funny subjects that must be learned, but can't be taught.

Oh there are many elements of leadership that can be taught: techniques, technologies, aids, processes etc... but those aren't leadership, they are its accoutrement (some are critical certainly, but they don't make a leader).

Leadership must be learned; but it cannot be taught. It can only be discovered from within, by each individual. Except in a few rare cases (yes, some really are just natural leaders), leadership only appears when it is needed critically. When someone is tested, and must rise to the occasion. It must then be developed, and refined, or it is wasted.

Unfortunately, we have spent the last hundred years removing those tests that bring leaders to the front, out of our societies. At the same time, we have been removing the structures that nurtured leadership, and allowed it to grow and flourish.

Is it any surprise we have so many "managers" but so few leaders?

Leaders solve problems, with people.

In business, the last generation of real leaders we in the U.S. experienced were men seasoned by the Viet Nam war. War is the crucible of leadership; and those men came into "management" roles in the early through late '80s.

It's no coincidence that this time period is noted for bold, perhaps brash, and sometimes overly aggressive leadership. This was the generation of leaders for whom such personality traits were expected, encouraged, and enhanced by their experiences.

I sincerely hope that one of the good things to come out of the current wars in the middle east, is another generation of young men, entering leadership position in the corporate world, who understand what real leadership is, who have experienced both being lead by good leaders, and leading themselves.

It was a lack of REAL leadership, that has lead American business to where it is today. Not understanding what risks are worth it, and what aren't. Not understanding that the men come first, the mission comes next, and that maintaining mission focus is the only way to succeed.

Not understanding that leaders, solve problems, with people.

Not numbers, not techniques, not mergers and acquisitions, not computers... Leaders solve problems, with people.

Now I said leadership can't be taught; and I stand by that, it can't. There must be a spark, and a fair bit of steel in you, to become a leader.

What I didn't say, is that without instruction in the tools and techniques of leadership, it is difficult to become a good leader, and to be successful. Some stumble on it by themselves, by accident, or through painful experience; but very few are able to afford those mistakes, and as a leader your mistakes are written on the backs of others, so it is your responsibility to make as few of them as possible.

This is where all those books, and lectures, and all the other "stuff" comes in... and generally where I tell folks to toss it all (well, not all; just most) out the window.

I say that, because almost all of the so called "leadership" books out there, are actually about management.

Leaders solve problems, with people. Managers manage issues and resources. You can't be a successful leader without some management skills and talent (or at least knowing who to delegate management to, which is a management task in and of itself); but being a great manager wont make you a great leader, or even a good one.

I do not denigrate the importance of management, and managers. Without managers, tasks become infinitely more difficult to accomplish; and frankly many issues need managing, not solving.

You need leadership though, to do great things. To accomplish the extraordinary, or the unexpected, or the inspired, you need great leadership.

So, you can't teach it; but maybe you can teach someone how to learn it, and how to avoid some of the biggest mistakes along the way.

In that, the best I can do, is relate what I believe are the fundamental principles of leadership.

The first and most important principle of leadership,
is knowing and understanding your mission.

You cannot lead, if you don't know where you are going.

First, what is your overarching mission?, and what are the goals and criteria for that mission. Once you understand that, look at the lower level missions, and ask: How does this mission help me accomplish the greater mission? What goal does it achieve? What criteria does it support. Understand how they fit together... and if they don't re-evaluate either the lower level mission, or the larger mission.

For each mission, know and understand it, and all it's aspects. What are your goals, and what means and methods are available to you to achieve those goals. Is the mission achievable within the constraints? If not you must change the mission, change the constraints, or change the means and methods available to you. There is no other option.

If you don't understand the mission, you will fail. If you do not have the proper means and methods available to you, you will fail. If the constraints of the mission do not allow the mission to be accomplished, you will fail. When you fail, it will be your responsibility, and your failure; because you did not ensure you met the requirements to succeed.

What are the consequences and implications of your mission? What are the consequences of success, and what are the consequences of failure? How does your mission relate to other missions, in co-operation, competition, and opposition. What will the reaction to your mission be? How will success or failure effect your next mission.

You must also understand how success is measured. Don't let metrics drive you (or your goals will be subverted to the metric) but understand them, and use them.

Evaluate your plans, against your results; you can't do that without metrics. Look at what progress you've made, and analyze what elements of your actions have got you there. Test your assumptions. Then re-factor all of that, and if necessary revise your plans, change your methods, or re-evaluate the mission as a whole.

The second principle of leadership, is that people are your only resource.

People have tools, techniques, technology, process, and procedure; but as leader, it is the PEOPLE that are YOUR resources. People have tools, you have people.

For you to succeed, for you to accomplish your mission; your people must succeed first.

To succeed, people MUST get these things from a leader:
Loyalty: A leader must be loyal to the bone. Loyalty down, means loyalty up. You support your people, you protect them, you take the heat for them. It's your responsibility, no matter what.

If you do that, they will support you, and give you everything they have. If you don't, they won't. Without loyalty, you have nothing. Without loyalty, you are not a leader.

Sadly, one must also recognize when loyalty is not reciprocated, or deserved; but above and below.

It is rare that someone cannot be lead by a good leader, but it happens. Once you have exhausted all the tools that are available to you, and someone still will not be loyal, and still will not be lead, then they must no longer be allowed to be a part of your organization. They are poison to your people, and to your mission, and you must understand that, and how to deal with it.

When as a subordinate leader you recognize that your senior leaders are not providing loyalty down, and not deserving of loyalty up, your task is infinitely more difficult.

Your first priority is to protect your people. The faithless leader will attempt to hold anyone responsible for their own failures (and they WILL fail), and use you, and your people to cover their mistakes, and aggrandize themselves.


Yes, you have to work within the rules of the organization; and in order to reach their current position, the faithless leader will most likely be a master of those rules, and will use them to their advantage, and your detriment. So get to be as good with the rules as they are. Don't compromise your honor, but FIGHT BACK.

If it comes down to it, and there is no other way, you have to take the blame and not your people. That's your job, you're the leader. Just make sure that when you do, you take the bastard above you, down with you. Don't sacrifice yourself for nothing, sacrifice yourself for your people, and for the mission.

Remember, a good leader will always find another mission.

Clarity:A leader MUST understand the mission, and the tasks, goals, timelines, constraints, and resources related to it. They must remain focused on the mission, and provide clarity of thought, direction, and drive.

Your people have to focus on their tasks, it is your job to make sure they can do so; and to help them maintain focus and clarity. You can't do that, if you aren't clear yourself.

Communications: Simple. If you cannot effectively communicate, you cannot lead. Your people have to receive direction, guidance, support, and everything else from you, and the only way they can do that is through your voice, and your pen.

Not only that, but you must be able to communicate with other groups in your organization, and with your leadership, just as effectively; or frankly, you won't be prepared for your missions, will receive missions you will have difficulty in accomplishing, and will not receive the resources or support you need to succeed.

Guidance: As I said, your people are your only resource; and people need guidance. As a leader you will have to provide guidance about everything from a task, to your peoples personal lives. Do the best you can, be honest, and always tell them what you think is best for them. It's all you can do.

Support: A leader must provide his people with the resources they need to complete their tasks. If you can't get them what they need, they can't solve problems for you. They can't accomplish the mission for you. If you can't get them what they need, they don't fail, YOU do, and it's your responsibility.

Your people must also get from you the support they need to feel secure in their position, and to grow within their career. They must understand that you are as concerned about their development, and their success, as your own. That in fact, their success, is your success. You can't fake it. If you don't feel that way, either you're leading the wrong folks, or you shouldn't be a leader at all.
Give people these things, and they will accomplish anything for you. Give them less than this, and you will receive less in return. Give them none, and you will receive none.

The third principle, is that it is YOUR responsibility.

Always. You are the leader, it is your responsibility to ensure the success of your mission, the success of your people, and the success of your organization. If your organization is unsuccessful, it is your responsibility.

If you fail in your mission, do not achieve your goals, or your people fail in their tasks, it is your responsibility, and your failure.

If one of your people screws up, it's your responsibility, and your screwup. They either screwed up because you didn't lead them properly; or because you allowed them the opportunity to screw up and should not have. In either case, it is a failure of leadership. Iwt is YOUR failure.

If a group you are dependent on screws up, and doesn't meet your dependency, it is STILL your failure, because you should have had a plan, or a contingency, or some other way to accomplish the mission.

Unless that is, you were prevented from eliminating that dependency, finding some other way to fulfill it, or altering the mission so that you may achieve the goal of the mission by some other means; in which case it is your senior leaders failure. They failed to provide you, one of THEIR people, with the resources and support necessary to succeed. Either way, it is a leadership failure.

The fourth principle of leadership is to understand priorities.

Your priorities are as follows, and in strict order:
1. People
2. Organization

3. Mission

4. Task

5. Everything else
You are a leader. You solve problems, with people. Your people are your only resource. Without your people you fail, your tasks fail, your mission fails, and your organization fails.


Not just your people by the way, but all the people in your organization... of course you are the leader of your people, so you are responsible first to your people; then to all the other people.

It's important to understand though, that sometimes doing what seems to be the right thing for one of your people, may in the long run harm the organization or the mission so much, that it harms the person you were trying to help.

Also, you MUST understand when the mission is so critical, that people must make sacrifices.

Equally important, you must understand when the mission is NOT so critical, and when you and your people are asked to make sacrifices, you should refuse.

Your organization is second. Never let the organization destroy your people; the organization needs people, and leaders, to be successful so allowing the organization to destroy your people is counterproductive.

That said, again, there are times that it is necessary to do something less optimal for your people, so that the organization can survive and succeed, and continue to provide benefit to your people. Understanding the difference can be damn hard.

Also, never let the task, or the mission, harm the organization. If you do, you may have accomplished your task, but you've failed your greater mission, the good of the organization and the people within it.

It is VERY easy to allow that to happen. You become so focused on your lower level mission, or don't understand it's consequences and implications well enough; that you end up achieving your goal, but ultimately having it be counterproductive.

Guard against this by understanding your missions at every level, as well as you possibly can; along with all the secondary effects, consequences, implications, and reactions.

Similarly, don't let a task, get in the way of the missions. Especially don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good. It is all too easy to allow the accomplishment of a specific task, or the meeting of a certain metric, to completely consume you.

If you do, you will harm the mission, the organization, and your people.

Which brings me to the final principle:

You cannot disobey the law of unintended consequences.

It's like gravity. You may put it off for a while, but eventually, you're going to run smack into the ground at 140mph.

If for some reason you are unfamiliar, the law of unintended consequences is simply this:

You can never do just one thing. All actions (or inactions) have consequences and outcomes other than that which was intended, which are impossible for you (or anyone else) to forsee.

Life is extremely complicated. You can never have total, perfect information, or total perfect reasoning. Any idea that depends on coming anywhere close to that may seem to work at first, but will ultimately fail.

Anything you do will have effects you didn't anticipate. That's just the way it is. There is no way around it. So long as you remember that, do what you can to understand and mitigate what you can forsee and understand; and remain flexible, and responsive to changes; you'll be OK... or at least as OK as you can be.

Internalize all this, so that it's near to instinct, and if you are a leader, you will succeed. Ignore all this, and you will fail, no matter how much natural talent there is in YOU; because when you're a leader, it's not about you, it's about solving problems, with people.

See Also: Managing Cynicism