Insights of Great Leaders Part IV

This is a copy of the article appearing in the Portsmouth Herald 11/5/2012 (see here):

© 2012 Brad Lebo —

The first three installments of this series on leadership introduced the seven insights of great leaders and discussed the first through fifth insights at greater length: knowing how to quiet doubt and worry; knowing how to care for the interests of self; knowing how to care for the interests of others; knowing how to navigate competing interests; and knowing how to benefit from feedback from a partner or team.

These insights are for leaders who want to lead long-term. They are also for leaders who wish to be at the “philosopher king” end of the leadership range (that has tyrant at one extreme and philosopher king at the other).

The remaining two insights are: knowing how to hold self and others accountable; and having the courage to imagine and act on a vision.

Knowing how to hold self and others accountable is a major challenge for most. One trap to avoid is the hypocrisy of, “do as I say, not as I do.” Effective leaders do not ask others to do what they cannot do themselves.

Indeed, they take the lessons learned from the challenge of holding themselves accountable and teach others how they might apply the same skills. This improves the chances of others not needing much outside help with accountability.

A core capability for holding oneself accountable is discipline. There are many supporting characteristics like integrity and responsibility, but at the end of the day, someone who does what he says he will, has to exercise discipline. If it were not this way, everyone would meet their commitments and be accountable all the time. This is not the case, of course.

With discipline as the foundation, there are a couple of proven strategies for improving the chances that you will meet a commitment you make. These strategies include: announcing the commitment to others (making it public); writing the commitment down; and giving permission to someone else (a coach or assistant) to hold you accountable.

Another strategy for holding both oneself and others accountable is being very clear about what is expected. This includes “seeing below the surface” if the expectation is more like an iceberg than a mountain (icebergs have hidden complications and resource demands while mountains are seen for what they are). Many missed commitments happen because someone underestimated what meeting the commitment would take.

A key skill for holding others accountable is being able to confront people when they fall short of meeting their commitments. Great leaders are able to do this while preserving the motivation and self-worth of their followers.

This feat is accomplished by avoiding an attack, public or private, that belittles the person and makes them feel bad. Preserving someone’s feelings is not the goal but rather a secondary benefit of viewing someone’s failure to meet a commitment as a joint problem that requires joint problem solving. After all, there are only three possible reasons that commitments are not met: the leader misjudged the capacity of the person whom she made accountable, the leader was not clear enough in setting the expectations, or the leader and the follower together misjudged the resources required to meet the expectation. The leader shares primary or joint responsibility in all three of these reasons.

A final note before moving on: everyone has failed to meet at least one commitment in his or her life. Great leaders know this and do not pretend otherwise.

The courage to imagine and act on a vision is at the core of what leaders do. The stuff about taking into account the interests of others and being able to quiet doubt, for example, aren’t what most people think of when they think of a leader. For example, there is no disputing that Steve Jobs led people to great achievements. My educated guess is that most people would agree he was a leader. It is an open question, at least in my mind, as to whether or not he was a great leader.

Great leadership takes something more than getting others to do what you want them to do. It takes something more than having the authority of position or rank. Being great takes all the insights presented in this series. This includes the last insight: having the courage to imagine and act on a vision.

It is easier to see how it takes courage to act on a vision than how it takes courage to create it. Acting on a vision introduces the possibility of failure and it takes fortitude to look failure straight in the face. But creating a vision means standing up to the status quo. It means daring to think in a different way. Leaders do this—they imagine a different path and dare to think it might be better. That takes courage, too.

Please note: leaders do not have to be the originator of the idea or ideas that shape their vision. They do have to create a plan they can execute, however, and this plan becomes their vision.

Leaders do have to bring some level of passion to their vision. This passion can be quiet or boisterous but it must be present to help them overcome the inevitable challenges. This passion also helps motivate others and may be more important at recruiting followers than anything else mentioned.

In closing, this series is one more drop in the ocean of material on leaders and leadership. It is framed by the notion of insights or a deep understanding of the qualities that make for great leadership in any situation—at least, any long-term situation.

If you are looking to improve your skills as a leader, you would do well to develop the skill described in each of the seven insights. Work on all seven at once or one at a time. Remember that leaders exist at all levels of an organization and in society. Be a leader who acts on all the insights and not just the few that come easily to you.