General H. Norman Schwarzkopf was nothing if not observant. Throughout a lengthy career, the observations he shared could – and did – fill an entire volume. His autobiography, It Doesn’t Take a Hero, dog-eared and worn from years of use, holds a place of some importance on a shelf in my office. More times than I can remember, I’ve reached for that book to pull up a relevant quote, an important factoid, or some time-proven wisdom. When it mattered most, I could count on the Bear to be there.
But the one piece of advice Schwarzkopf shared that I return to the most doesn’t come from his autobiography. It’s a quote that’s widely shared and rarely sourced; maybe it comes from another book, maybe even a speech. Its source isn’t nearly as important as its message: “You learn far more from negative leadership than from positive leadership. Because you learn how not to do it. And, therefore, you learn how to do it.”
In discussions on the subject of toxic leadership, the quote is indispensable. The same goes for destructive leadership in general. Quite honestly, when it comes to any aspect of poor leadership, the words strike a deep chord that resonates across generations. But the truth is that we also learn from positive leadership. A lot. In fact, some of us learn more from the good leaders in our midst than the bad ones who seem to lurk in the shadows between right and wrong.
When my thinking refocuses on positive leadership, I reach for a contemporary of Schwarzkopf, former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell. A good leader provides a beacon for others, something Powell understood all too well. His perspective on the subject was simple: “The most important thing I learned is that soldiers watch what their leaders do. You can give them classes and lecture them forever, but it is your personal example they will follow.”
How do you translate that into action? It’s one thing to avoid the mistakes of others, but how can you emulate the good around you? How can you be that beacon for others?
Speak your mind.
Be honest with people, even if that honestly isn’t always welcome. Don’t be unnecessarily harsh and never allow your honestly to cross the line into personal criticism but give people the honest feedback they need to grow and develop, then be there to help them.
If you really want people to trust you enough to come to you, then make it easy for them to do so. Learn to leave your door open, come out from behind your desk to greet visitors, and engage them in conversation. That doesn’t mean you should allow people to monopolize your time, but rather that you are there for them when they need you.
I freely confess that I have the patience and attention span of a three-year-old with a full bladder. That makes engaging people problematic at times, but I also understand how important it is that I listen closely in conversation. As difficult as it might be to engage some people in meaningful dialog, it’s an essential component of effective leadership. Learn to be an active listener, learn to lend an ear when it matters.
On my first day as a G-3, I gathered my team and offered one piece of guidance: “Never write an order for something that can be accomplished with a phone call. Build relationships and find ways to get things done that don’t require an endless stream of FRAGOs (fragmentary orders).” That guidance fundamentally changed the way we operated as a team, but it also made it much easier to do our jobs.
The quickest way to break down the cohesiveness of an organization is to spend too much time wallowing in the misery of a “we versus them” environment. Get over it. Focus in on solving problems and let others spend their time complaining.
Intellectual curiosity underpins effective leadership at every level. Understanding how things work is at least as important as why they work – or don’t. Asking questions – the right questions – shows to others that what they’re doing matters. And if it matters to you, they’ll apply themselves fully to the task.
Keep an open mind.
You won’t always agree with others but be open to the idea that they might be right, have a better idea, or see things more clearly than you. Allow people to disagree with you without fear of retaliation and you’ll be surprised at how much your team will grow. But it all starts with you keeping an open mind and an even temper.
Time is one resource that you can never have enough of. No one likes to have their time wasted, so it’s imperative that you respect the time of the people on your team. If you don’t wait for others, don’t make others wait for you. If you are annoyed by meetings that can be replaced with an email, spare your team from those same kinds of meetings. If you’re tired of people dropping tasks on you at the last moment, avoid doing that to others.
Have a plan.
A leader without a vision is like a car without a steering wheel. You can get things moving, but good luck controlling where they end up. A good leader has a plan and isn’t afraid to make the hard decisions required to achieve that vision. People know and expect as much. Don’t let them down.
As important as it is to learn to ask the right questions, a good leader also has a strong “BS filter.” For years, I kept a yellow penalty flag in a coffee mug in my office, and it was used liberally when the situation dictated. When something sounds too good to be true, it’s because it IS too good to be true. Be a leader that others can count on to throw the BS flag when it matters. Don’t be a sucker.
There are any number of other things you can do to set a positive leadership example for your team, and this list is only a beginning. It’s a foundation on which you can set an example that others will respect, admire, and emulate. And that’s as good a start as you’re going to get.