Thoughts About Leadership

Jim McPherson, NAAG Executive Director

A few weeks ago, the NAGTRI staff asked me to share some thoughts about leadership. While I was flattered, I was also a little intimidated by this opportunity. After all, if you are still reading this article you are probably already in a position of leadership and have formed your own ideas and exercise some of your own hard-earned skills every day. Attempting to give you new insights and new wisdom about leadership seems the height of arrogance. So that is not my purpose in the next few lines. What I intend to do is share with you a few ideas that I gathered during my career in which I enjoyed a ring-side seat watching some of our military’s truly great leaders practice leadership. My hope is that I will inadvertently uncover at least one nugget that you can take with you on your leadership journey.

It’s All about Relationships. Leadership at its core is an art, not science. The art is learning how to relate to, communicate with, and motivate others. We have all heard the phrase “natural born leader.” Well, that really isn’t true. Some people, by the nature of their personality, seem to effortlessly attract others to them in what appears to be a leader-follower relationship. An organizational leader doesn’t rely upon personality alone but upon skills learned, such as empathy, understanding, and motivation. Leaders work very hard on developing such “people skills” and applying them every day. The key take-away is that leadership is a learned skill.

Respect Your Team. People work hardest and give the most when they are treated with respect and dignity. You may only have one chance to demonstrate to your team that you value what they do and respect them as professionals. If you are successful in doing that, you will gain their loyalty.

Focus on the Individual. You lead a team, but the focus must be on the individual members. Learn names. This may sound obvious but you would be surprised how many leaders don’t know the first names of their team members. Send a written note — nothing says as much as when you take the time to write a note thanking an individual team member for a job well done. No, not an e-mail— a handwritten note! Always praise in public and counsel in private. And always look for opportunities to praise in public. Next time you begin a staff meeting, pause and thank the junior member who prepared the room for the meeting. The bottom line is, know your people. Know where they are in their careers, know what motivates them, and know what inspires them.

Every Step You Take Demonstrates Your Leadership. As a leader, you are constantly watched. Always keep that in mind and be a living example of calm and confidence. Keeping a cool head projects an awareness of the larger situation and how your actions are interpreted by those around you. The military conditions its members to move toward the sound of gunfire. But the military teaches its leaders to pause before moving, to exercise tactical patience, and allow a situation to develop before reacting. Only raise your voice when it is strategically required. That means you have taken the time to pause and plan what you are going to say before you say it.

You Establish the Vision. The mission of your office or your organization has already been established — and if it hasn’t, you need to talk with your boss! You articulate how your team is going to contribute to accomplishing that mission. That will be your vision for your team. You need to put it in writing and communicate that vision frequently. It needs to be simple, achievable, and measureable.

Learn to Communicate. Over 50 percent of effective communication is listening. Stop right now and look at your computer screen. Where is it? If it is between you and your doorway, it is in the wrong place. You should have to turn away from your computer screen when someone knocks on your door and says, “Boss, you got a minute?” Yes, that means you give up all privacy to your computer screen. But, even more so, it means you are now focused on the person who is talking to you. And remember, you are never too busy to communicate with your team.

What Happens After Someone Makes a Mistake. This is often cited as the true measure of your leadership. What is your reaction when someone misses a deadline, is negligent in performing a task, or causes embarrassment for the organization? The hardest thing to do as a leader is to take the blame for one of your team member’s mistakes. The corollary, of course, is to give credit to a team member for a success. Remember, your job as a leader is to be a human shield, to protect your people from external intrusions, distractions, and idiocy —and to avoid imposing your own idiocy upon them as well! The next time you learn about a mistake one member of your team has made, take a walk before doing anything. And when you return, take the blame for the mistake yourself and calmly work on a solution.

Lead By Walking Around. You have a flawed and incomplete understanding of what it means to work for you. There is no better way to get a sense of what it means to work for you than to get out of your office and walk around engaging in informal conversations with your team. Routinely circulating among your team in their environment helps shape your knowledge, provides situational awareness of your organization’s climate, and encourages your team to be more open about what is happening.

Final Thought.“The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor; but without folly.” - Jim Rohn

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