What Makes a Great Leader?

School is one of the best places to learn to become a great leader… Said no one ever. If you don’t listen to the podcast or haven’t yet, you probably are unaware of the two episodes I recently recorded about going back to school to get your MBA. One (Episode 7) was decidedly for going back for an MBA and the other (Episode 8) was decidedly against going back for an MBA. Ultimately I still fall in the middle in the argument. One thing I am sure of, the four walls of a classroom at an institution of higher learning, are rarely ever a place where you can build the leadership skills you need to be a cut above the rest.

I bring this up because one of the last classes I am taking for my MBA program is called “leading teams.” I chose the class based on a recommendation from a close friend whose opinion I trust. It is a great place for discussion of theories and concepts that contribute to leadership. I recently sat in a class where the professor facilitated a thirty minute discussion on the genetic attributes found to correlate to leadership skills. More specifically the genetic attributes we desire in our leaders. The final argument is that because you are born with said traits, you are seen as more of a leader by your peers and superiors. These people expect and encourage you to find leadership positions. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and bam you are more likely to be a leader.

I have heard these concepts time and time again. People point to studies that say leaders are generally taller than everyone else. One of my classmates pointed to a Malcolm Gladwell study that claimed height and symmetrical face shape as those genetic traits that result in a predisposition toward leadership abilities. I quickly responded that there are many short stumpy people with oddly shaped faces that I would follow into hell. My professor responded that these studies are well founded.

This discussion angered me for many reasons, not the least of which is this; accepting the argument that certain people are born with a talent you don’t have, due to a genetic predisposition, is a willingness to accept mediocrity inside of yourself. The minute you look at a person and say, “Tommy is tall, that’s why people look up to him” or “Stacy is strong that’s why she’s so good at (insert sport here)” your are negating the hard work required to develop a skill to a point of elite performance. I do not accept Malcolm Gladwell’s study. I do not accept anyone telling me that anyone on this earth is born with more of a certain predisposition for leadership when compared to others.

Leadership, is a life-long journey that requires the constant honing of your craft with the goal of achieving perfection and the understanding you will never obtain it. Here are the things I think you need to develop your leadership muscle so that it can put the weight of the world on its shoulders.

Experience Above All Else

There are schools that give you the experience you need to develop leadership. Most of their curriculum is conducted far away from any classroom. The majority of the talent you can develop to become a great leader is derived from actually leading people. You need to get out there an actually do it. Volunteer to be in charge. Ask for the challenge. Embrace how poorly you do the first few times and reflect on what you could have done better. Exercise the muscle and make it stronger.

Try first to be placed in positions where you lead your peers. It is the hardest thing in the world to lead a group of people who do not actually have a consequence for failing to follow your direction. Every officer in the Marine Corps spends at least 6 months of training strictly leading peers. Attempt to do it in an environment where your skillset is constantly evaluated and scrutinized. Look for direct feedback and attack your leadership weaknesses with a vengeance. This means if you wear your emotions on your sleeve (Cough ME) try your best to hide said emotions when they are negative.

More importantly, expand the variety of leadership challenges that you take on. Positional based leadership is a place of leadership granted to you based on your title and position. It means people have to do what you say or there are potential dire consequences for failing to do so. When I was a platoon commander I had positional based leadership. The rank on my collar afforded me certain privilege as a leader. Positional based leadership is arguably easier than any other type of leadership initially. People do what you say because they have to, but it doesn’t mean they will like you, or want to be a part of your team. Exploit your position to exercise the muscle but do not rest on the laurels of a title granted to you. You need to earn the respect of those people underneath you. Try not to accept positional based leadership positions until you have led your peers successfully. If you cannot do so, be extra hard on analyzing yourself and reflecting on your own decisions. Encourage feedback from those underneath you without sacrificing the code of conduct.

You gain respect by developing technical proficiency and leading by example. Leading by example is easier than gaining technical proficiency. It is holding yourself to the higher standard of those you are in charge of. It is knowing that in the moments where the situation is the absolute worst, you need to be beside those who look to you for guidance, in order to feel their tribulation and ultimately their triumph.

Technical Proficiency is Key

You cannot fully understand how to lead a machine gunner until you have at least attempted to assemble and disassemble his weapon system with the same skill that he can. You should also have fired that weapon a number of times before instructing said machine gunner on how to do so. This principle is universal and does not restrict itself to the profession of arms.

I now constantly find myself working with developers who have far better abilities to write code than I am remotely close to obtaining. That doesn’t mean I refuse to try. If anything I am constantly asking questions, looking for books to read, and websites to learn from. I want to know how their mind works, what they struggle with, and more importantly what they are really good at. This enables me to know what the consequences of my decisions are on their day to day activities. It also allows me to gain their respect when I come to them to ask them to teach me something. They are more willing to share a weakness with me, because I have shared one of my own with them.

No one likes the idiot sitting at the end of a board room table demanding we choose x widget when y widget is clearly the better decision. Develop the technical proficiency to understand the weaknesses of your own education. Encourage feedback to a point that enhances your own decision making abilities. Once your decision is made, commit and go in with every resource you have. Always be willing to admit when you made the wrong decision and work to develop your technical proficiencies further in order to prevent it from happening again.

The Journey Never Ends

We live in the information age. Enough said. There are so many great leaders out there who have written autobiographies or have authors lining up to tell their story. Know these great leaders, admire them, and study them. Examine their own weaknesses determine how you would build upon them. The lessons they have learned will save you years of wasted time and countless poor decisions.

Marines always point to a famed legend about General James Mad Dog Mattis. With limited information he made a decision to bomb a target that potentially housed hostile military personnel. After the rubble and debris was cleared it turned out that Mattis made a split-second decision that was correct. A reporter asked him how he could be so sure he was correct when he had only been serving at this echelon of leadership for a few short years. His response, “I made that decision based off of 10,000 years of experience.” He was pointing to the fact that he had studied the decisions of countless leaders throughout the history of mankind and used their experience to elevate his own abilities.

Servant Based Leadership

I close with this. General Lejeune encouraged his officers to treat their relationship with their enlisted men as one that was similar to that of a father and son. He was attempting to instill in his officers a concept that is now ingrained in the very soul of officership in the Marine Corps. Servant Leadership.

If you love those people underneath you and actually care about them more than yourself, you can be pretty awful at everything else and they will appreciate you for it. I have seen countless leaders who were really bad at a lot of things, myself included. Yet when it came to decisions about the people they were in charge of, they always made a decision that would best suit their subordinates as long as it did not sacrifice the mission. Mission first, Marines Always is a mantra you hear frequently in the military.

Apply it to your own world outside of the military and it works the exact same. Task First, People Always. Care about them more than you care about yourself. Do it to a point that almost (ALMOST) completely sacrifices your own well being. Do that and you can sleep at night knowing you deserve to be their leader.

3 Comments on “What Makes a Great Leader?

  1. Well said. I would argue one thing that separates good from great leaders is how effective the leader is at empowering his/her subordinates to act. This ties to concept of servant leadership and establishing trust with those you lead. It also sustains the legacy of the organization – by creating more leaders.

    • Sue, Thanks for the comment and nicely put. Definitely a good point that needed to be brought up. I think servant leadership is a post within itself that I will need to drum up in the future. It amazes me that this phenomena has not caught on outside of the military. The way it is drilled into our heads you would think it is the only way to lead. I’d be interested to hear your opinion based off of the years of experience you have when ever this topic comes up.

      • Servant leadership is a great topic. I think a lot of leaders both military and civilian, despite the best intentions, don’t really know what it means. I know it took me a while to really understand it. Often we hook on to the literal meaning of ‘servant’ and do too much for our followers, inadvertently creating mistrust and quashing innovation and initiative. To really be a servant leader, you have to be able to see how your actions bring out the best in your people – in other words, how can you best serve their growth and development while meeting the goals of the organization. Sometimes that means no action and for me, that was a hard lesson to learn.

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