Leadership 2

On the side is  Taddeusz Kosciuszko in Layfayette Park across from the White House.  

I am still thinking about leadership for my upcoming seminar and working through the discussion questions.   The seminar is for guys like me recently promoted into the senior FS.  Part of it is held at the Foreign Service Institute.   We have a really nice campus in Arlington.  The other part is a week-long offsite in West Virginia.   I have great expectations for the seminar.  I figure that the best part will be the cross discussion with all the others with such broad international experience.  It is not the ordinary academic seminar.

My experience in Iraq sharpened my view on leadership.  I learned a lot from the Marines.   They do leadership very well.   The thing l liked about their style was the way that everybody took a responsible role.  It was a truly participatory management with a strong leadership component.  It seems paradoxical to have both, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. 

Competent subordinates demand good leaders and good leaders value (and do not fear) competent subordinates.   The leader who trusts his subordinates is showing his strength and understanding that sharing responsibility does not mean diminishing it.  Bad leaders often actually prefer bad subordinates that they can complain about and blame for failures.

In Iraq I observed and had to practice a assertive leadership style that you don’t always see in bureaucracies.  My toughest realization was that others were looking to me to take the lead and that I deserved to do it.  I have been in charge of organizations before, but in the bureaucracy you can lean on rules and spread decision making.   We work with committees.  It is rarely any individual’s responsibility.   That is why thing don’t happen very fast.

One of the hurdles I had to jump in my leadership learning in Iraq was very prosaic.   It may sound comical in its simplicity, but I had to learn to lead physically.   When the helicopter or convoy arrived, I had to get in first or walk over to the landing zone first.  As a passenger, I had always been accustomed to milling around and then following the crowd.   

This is a small example, but illustrative of how people look to the leader and the leader has the responsibly to decide.  I also realized how the leader’s options are very much limited by the responsibilities of the position and the expectations of the subordinates.  The leader has to fill the position.  He cannot just do what he wants; he has to do what he should.  You have the responsibility to make decisions AND the responsibility to be able to make decisions.   That means you have to think problems through in advance, do your homework and keep up with events.   It is a lot harder to be the leader than the follower.  Followers can complain and remain passive.  Leaders have to do something.  No excuses.

Consistently good leadership is rare.  Most bosses are not leaders.   They duck or postpone the hard decisions.    They literally boss people around, which is not leadership.   A good leader motivates and sets up structures that make subordinate do their jobs “on their own.”  When you have to boss somebody around – use your power directly and overtly – you have already failed in that respect.  Bad leaders also tolerate underperforming people too long.  (I think, BTW, that this is one of my weaknesses as a leader. I also hide behind the “you cannot get rid of anybody in government” excuse too much.)  When the boss fails to control bad performers, he is failing in his responsibility to his team. 

Good leadership is also episodic.  I can think of times when I have been a good leader and many times where I have failed.   When I look back on successes, I find that they were often the result of circumstances that played to my personal strengths.  Which points me to another trait of good leaders.  They know their strengths and weaknesses and work to ensure that they are shaping circumstances to their strengths to the maximum extent possible.   This often involves sharing leadership with someone who has complementary skills.  That is why when you look closely you are often seeing good leadership teams in action, and not so much just a good leader.

My friend Jeff Thomas told me a story about a great building contractor he knew in N. Carolina.  Seems this guy was an absolute artist.   Then suddenly his work went bad.  Everybody blamed his divorce and they were evidently right, but not for the reasons they thought.   This guy’s wife was his detail manager.   He was wonderful at managing his workers and his projects, but he couldn’t manage himself.   She made sure he was where he was supposed to be and crafted the situations to emphasize his strengths.   Nobody understood this until the relationship ended.  Then it was clear to everybody.  

I think this silent partnership happens a lot more than we realize.  In the non-personal example it is often possible to good leaders to replace their complementary team members, but not always.   Many declines in leadership are attributable to the loss of a key subordinate or partner.

Anyway, I am going to post this and go run.  It is a beautiful October day.  I am supposed to think about the characteristics of good leadership.   I will do that while I am running.   The thing that I am considering is whether I should consider good leaders who did bad things.   Leadership is like fire.  It is a dangerous thing that can be used for good or bad purposes.