Reflections: A Lifetime of Leadership Lessons
Since 2003, I have had the opportunity to publish over 40 newsletters during my tenure at Academy Leadership. I am completing my 18 years as I will officially retire and pass the baton at the end of this year. As my finals days at Academy Leadership come to an end, I have become more and more reflective on the subject of leadership.
A few years ago, I spent many early Friday and Saturday mornings as a church elder in training and found myself in the unfamiliar position on the receiving end of leadership development and training. Admittedly, I enjoyed not being the facilitator and just soaking in the discussion led by someone else. The training, however, provided introspection as to what we do at Academy Leadership every time we stand in front of a group of people who are taking valuable time out of their busy schedules to focus intensely on the heavy topics related to leadership.
Over our past twenty years of leadership development, over 25,000 have attended our intense leadership programs. In the very first Power Point slide we provide food for thought as to why it is an illusion that effective leadership communication does not take place as a matter of routine. We further engage them as to why this is normal operating procedure for many leaders. As leaders, we know instinctively from our own career paths how critical leadership communication becomes when one is thrust into a position to lead others. Moreover, our facilitators continue the discussion by challenging attendees to look at different ways to be a better communicator and, if implemented, attendees will realize a significant increase in their leadership effectiveness. We deigned these programs to hopefully set the stage for what is to follow during the program, emphasizing that leadership is hard work.
Using the Adult Learning Model Cycle as our fundamental approach, we ask our attendees to:
- Use their concrete experiences to share with others.
- Reflect daily, journaling after each module as they discuss the various facets of effective leadership.
- Think about how they can apply what they are learning and actually discuss with other attendees their discoveries.
- Create an Action Plan to implement these new approaches and form habits as they continue their leadership journey.
Hopefully, in a short period of time we help them to realize that they — and only they — can be held personally responsible to implement the leadership skills and close the Knowing-Doing gap.
At the center of all of this learning about leadership one hopefully starts to understand what it takes to be more effective as a leader. We facilitate the use of these thoughts and ideas by a cohesive and meaningful written Personal Leadership Philosophy. This leads me to my final thoughts on leadership; and in particular how difficult it has been for us to define and lead the discussion on leadership as they relate to one's personal values of integrity and character.
During my elder's training I was given a handout that was a summary of a report on research conducted by two authors often referenced in leadership development presentations — Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. The study was reported in various chapters of their outstanding work, The Leader's Legacy. This is a book and survey we actually use during The Leadership Philosophy Workshop. The question on this particular survey asked the open-ended question: "What values, personal traits or characteristics do you look for and admire in your superiors?" In other words, what makes a leader worth following? What these 15,000 managers said they wanted most from their leaders was integrity. What followed next in top responses was "is truthful," "is trustworthy," "has character," and "has convictions."
In the summer of 2003, I remember spending three days in a cabin along Glen Lake near Traverse City, Michigan writing a chapter on the subject of integrity. Following much consternation and deep thought (it did in fact take three long days), I completed my work with an eight page chapter in my book, Inspiring Leadership: Character and Ethics Matter. I reread my own work the other day and quite frankly nothing has changed about this topic: "...individuals are responsible for their own integrity." Yes, many people and events will influence them, but in the end, integrity is of their own making. People are responsible for establishing their own standards, and their choices determine the kind of actions they take in life. Ultimately, this defines their character.
As difficult as it was to write a chapter of some enlightenment about integrity, I recalled the struggle I had with trying to define character. The more I read about the topic and put pen to paper the more convinced I became that "...character is the will to do what's right even when it's hard and, better yet, when no one is watching." Yes, character is indeed about will because it requires a willingness to make tough decisions — decisions that sometimes run contrary to emotion, intuition, economics, current trends, and in the eyes of some — common sense. Now there's a cliché if there ever was one — who defines common sense? At this point in life I fear my definition is far different from those of the young emerging leaders who sit in front of me and wait for the golden nuggets of sage wisdom and advice to pour from my mortal lips.
Leading with integrity and character necessitates a series of pre-decisions. Our next generation of leaders must decide ahead of time what is non-negotiable as it relates to right and wrong. Sound familiar? A Personal Leadership Philosophy? We do ask them to articulate what it means to lead. We do often ask them to define these heady values as they pertain to them. Defining these values is a difficult task to complete in short order when most of us can't define it clearly without taking the time necessary for careful thought and introspection. In 2003, it took me the better part of three days. Yes, character involves doing what's right because it's the right thing to do regardless of the cost. And it's those last few words — regardless of the cost — that divide the people of character from those with good but negotiable intentions.
I started to write an ethics case study in 2014 based on the 2011 Penn State University scandal, but I never finished the project. At the center of this controversy was the late and very much admired and respected football coach, Joe Paterno. The phrase "doing the right thing" banged around in my head as I attempted to put my thoughts (mostly of utter disappointment for someone I had held on a pedestal for a long time) in some kind of cohesive lesson so many could learn from this ethical decision making disaster. Without trying to second guess or judge "Joe Pa's" actions it does appear on the surface that the day of reckoning came for him when "the significance and importance" of the good standing of an institution called PSU far outweighed the "significance of the compromise." If one were placed in the same situation that the coach faced, an inner voice would simply say, "this is wrong and we must do something to stop it." There was internal pressure in being compliant and reporting everything up the chain of command, and it could have been at the time what Coach Paterno thought was enough. But as he sadly admitted on literally his deathbed, "I didn't know exactly what to do but now I regret ... I should have done more." Don't get me wrong. It is easy for me to say and have asked the question of myself, "would I have done the same thing?" However, leading without character is not about doing what we think is right to avoid the consequences. Leaders worth following do the right thing because it is the right thing. Virtue is not a means to an end ... it is the end.
Some final thoughts:
- One's character is reflected in every decision one makes and every relationship one establishes.
- Every leader eventually wears two badges: one visible and one invisible. The visible badge is transparent — one's position and title. The invisible badge takes discovery and it has to do with one's influence as a leader.
- One's influence can be defined as moral authority or doing the right thing based on the strength of one's character. This will inspire people to lend their hearts to the leader — always.
- A leader cannot influence others unless they are respected.
- Leadership is about what makes a leader different; there is no perfect model of a leader.
- It has been said and written that there are five dimensions of authentic leadership: Purpose, Practice (values), Heart (attitude toward others), Relationships (trust and respect) and Self Discipline (form habits and deep practice).
My father's words of wisdom to me after taking command of my first US Navy aviation squadron nearly 35 years ago were monumental about one of these dimensions — the Heart — and a turning point in my own personal leadership journey. He said, "Your people don't care what you know — they just want to know that you care."
Never take your leadership development for granted. Leadership is not just hard work — it's very hard work.