Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Leadership for New Leaders

After a recent guest lecture, one of the students approached me afterwards and asked me for advice about leadership and management. She was about to become a first-time manager and leader for a six-person team. Later, she emailed me about the same topic. Below is my reply to her.

"Simply because you care about these issues of true leadership and are willing to study, think, and put forth the effort to become a good leader, immediately places you in a favorable position. You will succeed, almost certainly, as a natural consequence. But, whatever advice you take or book you read, ask yourself, "Do I serve those I lead, or do those I lead serve me?" It's a pretty simple question that boils everything extraneous about leadership and management away.

You mentioned to me twice, once in our conversation and again in your email, that you wanted to be "respected." Exercise caution in your pursuit of that goal because it can quickly become motivated by pride and ego. The more you pursue respect from those you lead, the less likely you are to find it. Instead, exercise the behaviors which engender respect-- such as competence in your job, mutual respect for others, courage, a healthy lifestyle, creativity, integrity, humor, and honesty-- and let respect flow to you naturally, if it so chooses. Abraham Lincoln was a prime example of someone who was routinely insulted by those that he led, notably members of his appointed Cabinet and commanders of the Union Army. He would tolerate unbelievable levels disrespect from both groups, as long as he felt that their overall value to the mission overshadowed their insults against him. However, he had his limits of tolerance and would take swift action to remove people from the team when their impact on the mission became undeniably negative. Be watchful when yearning for "respect" from those you lead. It's a subtle and common road to hardship for many new leaders and managers.

From the perspective of traditional text books on leadership and management, my favorite books are "The Leadership Challenge", by Kouzes and Posner; "First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently" by Buckingham and Coffman; and "The Toyota Way", by Jeff Liker. These books helped me realize that I wasn't crazy after all-- at least on issues of leadership and management. The philosophies which seemed so obvious to me, but so contrary to much of corporate America, were, in fact, what most employees hoped for from their business managers and leaders. These books gave me the courage to stand comfortably in the winds of opposition, oftentimes from my peers and occasionally from my supervisors.

From a non-traditional perspective, my favorite book is "Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage", by Alfred Lansing. This first-hand account of the crew's epic adventure embodies everything imaginable in selfless teamwork and leadership . It also highlights that, what appear to be great failures in life will, over time, be judged as the greatest of accomplishments. There is no such thing as failure when the people involved with a project or other undertaking are motivated purely and maintain a fierce attachment to those motives under the worst of conditions. Also, virtually any book which accurately portrays Abraham Lincoln is incredibly valuable as a reference for the pinnacle of leadership and management. My favorite of all time is, "Abraham Lincoln: A Documentary Portrait Through His Speeches and Writings", by Fehrenbacher. More recently, I enjoyed "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln", by Goodwin. Words can't express how much I admire Lincoln as a leader, nor would those words do justice to the man.

From a very non-traditional, philosophical perspective, my favorite book is "The Tao Te Ching", by Lao Tzu. It opened my eyes to the irony of success and leadership-- i.e., that sometimes, you need to try less to achieve the most. The teams and organizations which pursue "greatness" for the sake of notoriety and fame, will likely fail; or possibly achieve, but find no lasting fulfillment. But those who pursue greatness for the purity of pursuit and the betterment of human beings and Mother Nature are much more likely to find greatness-- quietly, peacefully, and naturally. This, of course, is a common theme in many philosophical and theological teachings. I was raised in a Christian Methodist family, but find wisdom and commonality in many other forms of theology and philosophy, too. The God in which I believe created all paths towards learning. Fallible humans have decided to make them exclusive and authoritative. But, the Tao Te Ching is not about religion; it's a philosophy. The only deity in Taoism is Integrity.

Helpful? I hope so... best of luck to you and keep in touch. Let me know how things go..."

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