As you read the following leadership tips, you will see that many of them are common sense applied, or they are reminders of the tried and true, distilled from the collective wisdom of the species:
1. People don’t care what you know until they know you care. Leaders are listeners. As the folk saying reminds us, “God gave us two ears and one mouth” — surely a good guide to our communication. In a democratic environment, it is essential to establish a connection with others built on trust and respect. Good leaders know how to be present for the people they serve. Mindful listening helps establish a genuine connection. Leaders are sympathetic or, better, empathetic when face-to-face with suffering, triumph, tragedy, or everyday mundane experiences. When visitors came to the White House, Theodore Roosevelt would look people in the eye and sit stock still while listening to their story; they came away from the encounter feeling that they had been heard. Likewise, Bill Clinton had the ability to connect with people from an array of backgrounds; they felt he gave them his undivided attention, making them feel as if they were the most important people in the world.
2. Leaders are servants. In a democratic culture, leadership is not about I-me-mine, but we-us-our. In our constitutional republic, leaders are servants who seek to improve the commonwealth. (Ever think about that word, common-wealth?) Elected officials work for the general welfare of our communities, not for special interests. Corporate leaders in the C suite work for all shareholders, not just the privileged few. The people who are most affected by a decision often contribute ideas that are a substantial improvement over what a leader was thinking before consulting them. If people feel that they are listened to, and that their ideas are incorporated, there is more buy in. To use a hackneyed phrase, servant leaders know how to create win-win situations for as many people as possible.
3. Building consensus, one person at a time. Consensus-building skills are a highly desirable trait for survival in America’s leadership ecology. Say you have a vision that requires significant change. You have to be able to explain the direction you want your organization to go. You need followers to buy in. If all are not immediately on board, find a few key people who have influence within the organization. Persuade these influencers first. Take care to listen to their concerns. Answer their questions. Bring them along. Once they buy in to what you are doing, they will bring others along.
4. Finding consensus early. Another way to achieve some consensus in a room of strong-willed individuals is to start by finding one thing that all of you can agree on. Then find, if possible, a second and third thing, no matter how small. These small successes build momentum for later negotiation. When the going gets tougher, find something 90 percent can agree to. What horse-trading must occur to bring along the 10 percent? Perhaps the next issue only has 75 percent consensus. What horse-trading must occur to bring along the 25 percent? Using this method, even a cantakerous group can agree to three or four things in one productive meeting.
5. Size matters. If two people are on stage debating, and one has considerably more height or presence than the other, then the person who is shorter or who has less presence should not stand behind the podium, where he will not make as strong an impression as his opponent. He should come out to the front of the stage and speak forcefully from that position of strength. He will be closer to the people and thus appear larger than his opponent standing farther back on stage behind the podium. I have seen people who are short of stature and lacking in charisma carry the debate using this technique.
6. Regarding PowerPoint presentations: They are often overused and not well used. But in a debate there is an advantageous way to use a slide that is projected before an audience and is bigger than life. Project your most powerful chart, quotation, statistic, or image up on the screen during your presentation, and try to keep the image before the audience even during your opponent’s presentation. I have seen this technique used to devastating effect — your picture is worth his thousand words.
7. Take responsibility for the mood in the room. Social psychologists who study group behavior know that people are highly influenced by the mood of dominant personalities. Moods are contagious. A person comes into a room either with an upbeat, can-do spirit; or with an air of indifference; or with a downcast defeatist attitude. Leaders know how important it is to put their game-face on when they walk into a room. They should be realistic and never pollyannish, but positive. They take responsibility for the mood in the room, and they can project their passion for the mission.
Leaders take care to master their moods, their tongues, and their actions. George Washington knew he had a bad temper and other serious flaws, so he carefully wrote out and studied the “Rules of Civility” to help discipline his words and actions. You must make every effort to project a steady personality and rock-solid character to those around you. As a leader, you are on stage 24/7. There are no intermissions. It is sad but true that people remember the one negative statement, the one unkind criticism, the one questionable action, far longer and far more vividly than a thousand good words and deeds. Self-mastery is essential among those who are watching you and looking to you for leadership.
When presenting the Leadership Life Cycle, I show how important it is to learn to lead yourself first. Alexander the Great could conquer the world but confessed that he could not conquer himself. Before dying at the age of 33, Alexander made mastering himself his next great project. And Alexander had for a teacher no less than Aristotle. But he knew it would be the toughest conquest of all. One must control emotions, the urge to retaliate, a biting tongue, and other negative responses. Leaders know the importance of the Hippocratic Oath: First do no harm.
8. Be the one willing to make a decision. Often people have too much information, don’t fully grasp the issues, are frightened, reluctant to upset others, or otherwise hesitant to make the decision to move forward to a better state. Leaders are the people who by temperament or training know how to make the tough decisions, the 51-49 decisions that may only be ratified by the passage of time. This attitude is exemplified by the sign on Harry Truman’s Oval Office desk: “The buck stops here!”
9. Be as tough as you have to be. Admiral James Stockdale observed — and he earned the observation after spending seven years in captivity in North Vietnam — that leaders are survivors, and the people around them know it. The best leaders know how to accept physical hardship, handle psychological difficulty, call on liberal learning, and retain faith in a transcendent order. Physical, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual toughness are essential to leadership in tough times. Make this toughness habitual. As the chestnut goes, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
10. Headline rule. Leaders must not only be effective; they must be ethical. If you are ever in a quandary over some questionable action, a good rule of practical ethics is to ask yourself: “How would this action look if it were the headline of a newspaper.” 99 out of 100 times, you will know exactly what you should do.
11. Magnify the message and multiply the messengers. The larger the organization you are serving, the more dependent you are on the buy-in of others. Make sure the team that you’ve assembled understands the vision and how it is being implemented. Send them out as your ambassadors, because you cannot and should not be leading alone.
12. Always be humble and always be eager to give the credit to others. There is nothing more unbecoming in leaders than when they steal all the credit from the people who are doing the heavy lifting for the organization. Their efforts would be in vain without all the people who are helping them achieve a common vision. As Christina Keller, one of our speakers at the Hauenstein Center, put it, “Good leaders step in front of criticism and step aside for praise.”
13. Leverage crisis into growth. Crises are either the result of some internal failure (cowardice, pettiness, and vices of all types) or some external challenge (budget cut, loss of a key person, change in the market). You must be self aware and take the time to process a crisis and the emotions it produces. When presenting the Leadership Life Cycle, I try always to show that crises can result in our growth so that we become more ethical, effective leaders, even if it is difficult to appreciate the trial by fire when we are going through it.
14. Study the people around you, for you will surely learn much about leadership from them. We all are works in progress. No leader is ever finished with learning the art and science of leading. Keep your eyes and ears open to learn what works. Read good biographies of leaders. Be humble — willing to be mentored, instructed, and corrected by those wiser than you. Careful observation of all the antimodels will also teach you what not to be, how not to act, what not to say. Keep a mental checklist of traits that make for good leadership — courage, humility, connection, vision, principles, decisiveness, consensus-building skills, etc. Keep a mental checklist of traits that make for ineffective or unethical attempts to lead — arrogance, dishonesty, cowardice, imperious behavior, insensitivity, weakness, lack of respect for others, acting in bad faith, etc.
15. Master social customs so that you do not step on your message. When you walk into a room, you need to know how to make a positive impression right away. You need to know how to dress and how to speak grammatically. You need to know the give and take of conversation as opposed to bludgeoning people with egocentric monologues. You need to know not to horn in on two people huddled in conversation. You need to feel comfortable with pleasantries as the lead-in to more serious conversation. You need to know the order of introductions and good table manners. You need to know where to put your name badge and which pocket to keep your business cards in. It is essential to master these seemingly trite social customs so that you don’t make distracting faux pas. You do not want unpolished behavior to draw attention away from your message.
16. Have your “elevator speech” as ready as your business card. You really should be able to tell your vision to anybody, any time, in about 30 seconds. Leaders have a vision of what must change and what can stay the same. Can you explain it with clarity, conviction, and concision?
17. Do your homework. If someone up the chain of command poses a challenge for a number of subordinates to tackle, come to the next meeting with more plans and better plans than anyone else. General George Patton did exactly this in December 1944 when General Dwight Eisenhower and Allied forces were caught off guard by the German offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge. Patton did not come to the next meeting wringing his hands, but prepared to move on two or three well-considered alternatives. Because he did his homework, he dominated the meeting.
18. Project confidence — dress like your boss. Project that you are ready to lead on a moment’s notice. After hostilities between the Patriots and Loyalists broke out at Lexington and Concord, George Washington took care to attend the sessions of the Second Continental Congress dressed in full military uniform. When the delegate from Massachusetts, John Adams, made a motion to name Washington commander in chief of the Continental Army, all eyes turned to the colonel who was dressed for the part and ready to lead. He was indeed chosen to lead American militia in the War for Independence.
19. Don’t burn your bridges. Try to remain on cordial terms with all. You never know when you will need their help. Don’t get ugly with them, demonize them, or betray them. When Republican Ronald Reagan was president, he often opposed, and was opposed by, the Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill. They would debate and go at each other with hammer and tongs during business hours. And yet they could stop the debate at 5 p.m. and go have a beer together and laugh like the best of friends. They knew not to take their policy differences personally. President Gerald R. Ford was also noted for the respect and courtesy with which he dealt with other public servants. Ford said he had political opponents, never enemies.
20. Remember, if you don’t like the way others are acting, first be a good example of what you want them to be. Don’t succumb to anger, disappointment, and frustration. Work harder, try harder, listen harder. It is first up to you. Those around you will respect your ability to stay focused on the job rather than get derailed by problems. It’s important to be consistent, to walk the walk.
21. Set realistic priorities — and stick to them. I’d bet your leadership position is a great one. You can do anything you want. But you cannot do everything. Set your priorities and stay focused on achieving results. Otherwise your energies will be so dispersed you won’t get anything accomplished.
22. Be bold. To lead is to capture people’s imagination to see the possibilities of something better. Don’t paint your picture with pale pastels, but with bold colors. And then be bold — be bold in serving the commonwealth.
23. Work smart. There are a hundred stupid ways to try to make something happen … and 2 or 3 smart ways. Choose the smart way by making sure you have consulted with the best minds.
24. Be a problem seeker, not just a problem solver. Michael Roberto reminds us that leaders have what the Greeks called pronoia, vision. Leaders should be good at anticipating problems and addressing the circumstances that lead to problems before the problems fully manifest themselves. Once a problem arises, it is too late to head it off and people are just reacting to it. Leaders do not have crystal balls. They cannot anticipate every problem. But they are also not just reacting to problems. Leaders are problem seekers. Managers are problem solvers.
25. Praise in public; correct in private. The importance of this act of kindness is self evident. It is merely the extension of the Golden Rule.
26. Say yes! I learned from GVSU President Emeritus Don Lubbers that leaders cultivate the atmosphere of a think tank. Welcome ideas. People will know that you are listening to them. Those who are serious about pursuing the ideas will do so and all will benefit. Those who are just musing will not and the institution is probably no worse for it. Saying yes to all promotes a creative, innovative work environment.
* * *
For more on leadership formation at the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, visit http://www.allpresidents.org/