This is the first article in an ongoing series that will explore the role of leadership from a diverse array of perspectives. Each article will be written by a Clark Nuber leader who will share their ideas on the unique challenges and opportunities they have experienced, and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.
I have been thinking about leadership a lot lately. Challenging times will do that. As a member of a family, a community, an organization, and a society, we are all looking for guidance and some assurance that everything is going to be okay, despite the turbulence of the moment.
As a leader, you aspire to provide that assurance, as well as a sense of optimism and hope, that will encourage families and teams to support one another as they face uncertainty together.
Lessons from Great Leaders
I have studied leadership for many years, and I especially enjoy biographies of inspirational leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, and many others who led during troubled times. I find their stories to be both instructive and inspirational
All these great leaders, past and present, had their own style, strengths, and (often) personal quirks. As human beings, they were also imperfect and subject to the same personal fears, biases, and uncertainties that affect us all. However, I believe there are five characteristics shared by all that are required to be a truly inspirational leader: Character, Judgment, Courage, Humility, and Empathy.
Some would argue that “good” character is in the eye of the beholder, and there is some truth to that. However, I believe that character has more to do with one’s motives than their point of view. The famous friendship between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia is a good example from recent history that shows two people can have completely different opinions and still be admired for their character.
In my view, the key to understanding someone’s character lies in understanding the objectives that motivate them. If the people you lead believe your decisions are prompted by kindness and a sincere concern for their well-being, they will trust you even if they are uncertain of your decision or don’t agree with your point of view. On the other hand, if people believe that a leader’s motives are heavily influenced by personal gain or winning at all costs, the leader’s character and decisions will be viewed with suspicion.
Great leaders have good judgment. This doesn’t mean they are right all the time or they never make mistakes. Rather, great leaders recognize that they don’t know everything, and so they seek out information and advice from others who may have differing opinions before making any important decision. After winning the presidency, Lincoln famously filled his cabinet with a “Team of Rivals,” a group of men who had vastly different political perspectives, with the specific goal of soliciting a variety of viewpoints.
Once the data and advice has been weighed, leaders must be able to make a decision and move forward with confidence and courage. And they must also be willing to adjust course if necessary. A strong leader is less concerned with “being right,” and more concerned with “getting it right.”
With respect to leadership, courage means making decisions that you believe to be in the best interest of the people or organization that you lead. It does not mean simply telling people what they want to hear. Sometimes your decisions will be unpopular, or the message will be difficult to deliver, but a strong leader must be willing to share the good with the bad.
I also believe that courage is contagious. A leader who demonstrates courage and a sense of optimism will instill those same characteristics in the people they lead. For example, many historians credit Churchill for sustaining the citizens of Great Britain during The Blitz with his example of extraordinary courage in the face of a seemingly overwhelming threat. Sadly, the opposite is likely true as well, and a fearful or pessimistic leader will impart those same destructive traits to their teams.
Most great leaders are self-aware and recognize both their personal strengths and their weaknesses. While they are confident in their ability to lead, they also recognize they cannot do it alone.
I think a good leader appreciates that they are in a position of leadership as a result of the support of others, and perhaps a bit of luck, and they don’t take that for granted. The concept of “servant leadership” is about recognizing that leadership is an opportunity to serve others for the greater good.
A familiar phrase these days is that “we are all in this together.” However, I recently heard someone say this differently in a way I think is more accurate: “We are in the same storm but different boats.” A great leader understands that we all experience events from a different perspective, and they endeavor to understand how others feel.
Some people do this naturally, but anyone can learn to be a more empathetic listener if they simply pause long enough to ask, “How would I feel if I were in your shoes?”
Becoming an Inspiring Leader
Most of us are leaders in some aspect of our lives and supporting team members in others. For instance, you might lead a project team, community group, or task force. If you are a parent, you are a leader in your family. I believe that anyone who sincerely endeavors to exercise these five leadership traits can become a more inspiring leader no matter the role or circumstances.
© Clark Nuber PS and Leadership Perspectives, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Clark Nuber PS and Leadership Perspectives with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.