Leaders & Leadership: Revisiting Guidance

Leading effectively can be a life’s work. Inherently situational, leadership is defined and informed by context, people and circumstance, all of which constantly change. Recent experience hammers this home: figuring out how to lead in a pandemic, in the crucible of the recent crises, calls out for tools that can offer assistance and perspective. Recently I came across two books on leadership that offer wisdom and insight, pertinent to today’s challenges. Yet neither book is contemporary, highlighting to me that the latest answer is not necessarily the best. Guidance can be found in different guises. Reading and reflecting on them reminded me: there is not only one best way.

Published in 2014, Colin Powell’s It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership is a semi-autobiographical book. It is not tightly structured, unlike Powell’s best-selling memoir, An American Life. Born to Jamaican immigrants, Powell attended public schools in the Bronx before going to CCNY and joining ROTC. He enlisted, served in Vietnam, and spent the next decades in ever more influential roles, from White House Fellow to Senior Assistant to the Secretary of Defense. A four-star general, Powell headed the Joint Chief of Staff for President Bush during the Gulf War. After leaving the military he was named Secretary of State for the second President Bush. Powell is a figure of historic significance who truly rose through the ranks, someone that it is difficult not to admire – even if one finds fault with his politics. In It Worked For Me, Powell writes about leadership, mixing personal experience with lessons learned. At the heart of the book and his conception of leadership are Powell’s 13 Rules of Leadership. Powell talks us through each, giving perspective and personal history. These traditional rules are well worth calling out in detail.

1. It Ain’t as Bad as You Think! It will look better in the morning.  Leaving the office at night with a winning attitude affects more than you alone; it conveys that attitude to your followers.

2.  Get Mad Then Get Over It. Instead of letting anger destroy you, use it to make constructive change.

3.  Avoid Having Your Ego so Close to your Position that When Your Position Falls, Your Ego Goes With It. Keep your ego in check, and know that you can lead from wherever you are.

4.  It Can be Done. Leaders make things happen. If one approach doesn’t work, find another.

5.  Be Careful What You Choose. You may get it. Your team will have to live with your choices, so don’t rush.

6.  Don’t Let Adverse Facts Stand in the Way of a Good Decision. Superb leadership is often a matter of superb instinct. When faced with a tough decision, use the time available to gather information that will inform your instinct.

7.  You Can’t Make Someone Else’s Choices. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours. While good leaders listen and consider all perspectives, they ultimately make their own decisions. Accept your good decisions. Learn from your mistakes.

8.  Check Small Things. Followers live in the world of small things. Find ways to get visibility into that world.

9.  Share Credit. People need recognition and a sense of worth as much as they need food and water.

10.  Remain calm. Be kind. Few people make sound or sustainable decisions in an atmosphere of chaos. Establish a calm zone while maintaining a sense of urgency.

11.  Have a Vision. Be Demanding. Followers need to know where their leaders are taking them and for what purpose. To achieve the purpose, set demanding standards and make sure they are met.

12.  Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers. Successful organizations are not built by cowards or cynics.

13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier. If you believe and have prepared your followers, your followers will believe.

Powell’s may not be Ben Franklin, but there is Franklin-like wisdom in these rules. The rules are solid, time-tested, and as Powell famously notes, they worked for him. I also don’t believe that they are hard and fast rules so much as general observations, gained from observation and reflection. As such, I found them to be helpful reminders, common-sense ways of thinking about leadership and responsibility.

In a completely different structure, James C. Hunter’s The Servant: A Simple Story About The True Essence of Leadership is book as an extended parable. Written in the late 1990s and as much a work of general speculative philosophy as it is a tract on leadership, The Servant has had great staying power in the leadership literature. The book has been reprinted many times and it has found its way to the bookshelves of many leaders.

Hunter, who is the principal and founder of a labor relation training and consulting firm, spins a tale of a wayward ambitious executive, hungry for the next position and frustrated in his personal and professional life. In the story, John recounts his personal journey as a first-person narrative. He talks of a family crisis and a retreat, forced by his wife, at a monastery to get his values and priorities in order. At the monastery John is renamed, meets a mentor, a very successful executive who left business for a different life, and engages in debate and reflection with other guests. Through Socratic-like debates (I’d wager the Hunter enjoyed studying Plato), John comes to understand that leadership does not come from power, but from authority. He learns that real authority is grounded in care, service, and love. He leaves the retreat humbled, wiser, and in a much better position to save his marriage and redirect his career. It is an engaging story, well told and briskly paced.

Reading and thinking through The Servant does not lead one immediately to seek a retreat or the counsel of monks. There are few “fixes” in the book. Instead, it’s something to ponder, to consider, and to think through. Just as a well-written book on ethics cannot spell out how we might behave more ethically in all situations, this book is about awareness, consideration, and the absolutely necessity of coming to a deeper understanding of why we lead and why we follow. Those are vital reminders.

A book editor once told me that eventually most books find their audience, the reader who wants to read them. I remembered that conversation when thinking about It Worked For Me and The Servant. They may not be the right books about leadership for you right now. If so, that is totally fine. What I would suggest, though, is that they offer different perspectives on leadership challenges we will never fully solve. Like the benefits of a good college education, you never know when they might be applicable and just what’s needed. And you might find that the very process of thinking about these books and their authors – and reflecting on their experiences and approaches – you will find a useful tool.

David Potash

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