The 6th President of the United States, John Quincy Adams, once proclaimed “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” Over 150 years later, the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, remarked “The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.”
Given that for over 31 years I served in the US Army – 27 of those years as an officer – it stands to reason I view leadership as a critical trait. Thru that prism, in fact, it is a foremost characteristic; an element critical for propelling one down the pathway of achievement.
If I crafted a tableau portraying the essential attributes necessary to achieve success in all endeavors, personal and professional, I would position leadership as the nucleus of the image. In this regard, I staunchly adhere to an observation President John F. Kennedy made over 60 years ago: “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”
In the long course of my life, by far, the most rewarding compliment ever levied my way remains being described as a “great Dad.” Frankly, I cannot imagine a more valuable eulogy. This treasured platitude aside, being called a “great leader” is an acknowledgement of almost similar regard and one I cherish with comparable revere. Both are accolades I prize with equal pride.
My approach to the art of leadership has always mirrored a passage my favorite poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, penned over a century and a half ago, “Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.” The former First Lady, Rosalynn Carter, recognized this connection as well, noting “A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.”
Experience has taught me that most people at some point in time want to be led, seek guidance, look for direction, desire advice, invite counsel; require assuredness or a simple pat on the back. This holds true for leaders just as it does for followers. For the ancient Greek Aristotle noted, “He who cannot be a good follower cannot be a good leader. “
In my lengthy professional career, the finest boss I ever had, Army Colonel John Twohig, was one such leader. Time and again I saw him motivate subordinates – yours truly included – to levels of accomplishment far beyond what many thought possible. He created a culture that drove us to succeed because we respected him; not because we feared his wrath should we fail.
Colonel Twohig listened to our ideas, followed our recommendations when prudent, and when not, led by example; literally, if necessary. He was never above doing a task he would require a subordinate to tackle. The 15th Century Italian philosopher, Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, proclaimed viva voce “He who wishes to be obeyed must know how to command.” US Army Colonel (Retired) John Twohig knew how to command and he knew how to lead.
Real leadership is a mash-up of a number of crucial qualities. Among these pivotal virtues, respect, empathy, compassion, humility and a myriad of other attractive characteristics are most necessary. Inspirational speaker, Israelmore Avivor, noted “Leadership is defined by the virtues of one’s behavior.” Effective leaders possess these qualities. Poor leaders wish they did or are oblivious to their shortcomings.
Leaders must also possess and adhere to the same canon of principles they require of those they lead. The man who made the brand McDonalds and the phrase “fast food” staples of the world’s lexicon, the visionary, Ray Kroc, noted “The quality of a leader is reflective of the standards they set for themselves.” I have found this to be an incredibly accurate observation. By far, the worst leadership I ever experienced was under the hand of those dodgy bosses with “do as I say, not as I do” mantras.
Leadership has no biases. Anyone, young, old, rich, poor, male female, child or adult, can be a leader. The devastation caused by the recent spate of hurricanes bears this out. Regular people of every gender, age, income level and any other quantifying demographic stepped forward in the face of great adversity and led relief efforts with a common goal: Helping others. In doing so, they emphasize aloud, Nigerian writer, Ifeanyi Enoch Onuoha’s, declaration “Leadership is never an avenue to be self-serving but a platform to render great service to people.” More dramatically, their performance personifies a Napoléon Bonaparte tenet, “A leader is a dealer in hope.”
I am optimistically enlivened when I witness young leaders in action. Foremost, my children who possess many of the qualities I noted earlier and in their own unique style, have exhibited leadership traits. Allison, owner of her own day care business, Rachel, an Army Captain, and Jenna, a former Fulbright Scholar and current graduate teaching assistant, reveal their leadership tendencies overtly. The remaining two, Jasmine and Grant, exhibit similar traits in a less demonstrable and more subtle way. Regardless of the approach, the quintet has shown on numerous occasional the ability to lead when required. This parent could not hope for anything more.
Aside from my family, there have been other refreshing opportunities to view young leaders in action. Two in particular are my fellow co-workers, Nancy Labra-Gomez and Bojana Andrejevich. The former, a logistics manager, and the latter, my deputy, are both young millennial women who lead by example and with great effect. When I witness them in action, I am reminded of a Kathy Calvin, CEO of the United Nations Foundation, belief, “Young people aren’t the leaders of tomorrow. They are the leaders of today and tomorrow.”
President Barack Obama once stated that “Leadership is about deeds, not words.” There is no better example of this declaration than Mother Theresa; a lifetime of actions in support of others. The venerated Catholic nun and leaders like her exemplify the message 13th Century Italian friar, Francis of Assisi, stressed when he wrote “The deeds you do may be the only sermon some persons will hear today.”
But while I agree you cannot overstate the visual impact of one leading by doing, I still believe it is possible to provide stirring leadership thru words alone. King George VI’s uplifting radio messages to the citizens of Great Britain during the darkest hours of World War II is a perfect example of one inspiring others with just verbal uplift. My point is, don’t discount the importance of words. (Though some gifted leaders do have the ability to do both: President Theodore Roosevelt and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. come to mind.)
I could pontificate on the topic of leadership for hours so keen is my respect for its value as an overarching life quality. However, as the esteemed German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, pledged, “It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book” so it is my vow as well (a covenant I fear I have failed to uphold.) So, I must be cracking on.
In the Second Fifty, when required, follow, and when you must, lead. And, in the words of NBA Hall of Famer, Michael Jordan, “Earn your leadership every day.
This blog is dedicated to all the amazing leaders who have touched my life, personally and professionally.
The quote I used as a title was uttered by Thomas Paine, English-American political activist, author, political theorist and most importantly, a major Colonial influence at the start of the American Revolution. World War II legend, General George S. Patton, also used a version of this passage, but one laced with a salty adjective or two.