I have always believed that if you want to understand leadership, look at individuals who have been great leaders. I am not talking about the obvious high-profile ones, but those who have touched your own life and left a lasting impression.
In my life, I have been lucky to have known many successful people from many different walks of life. So, I thought that taking the lessons I learned from this wide variety of sources could be a different twist on this matter of leadership.
Crystal balls, confidence, conflict resolution
My first contact was with Dick, a high school and college friend. Dick became a very successful president of a large bank in Milwaukee. I had a series of queries for Dick:
1. Define leadership as it pertains to your life’s work.
2. What makes a great leader?
3. What do great leaders do?
4. How do leaders deal with conflict and dissent in a team?
5. What five traits does a leader need to create a high performing team?
Dick’s answers were straightforward. For No. 1, he said, "As a leader, my job is first to define the mission and vision of the organization, build a team aligned with the mission and vision and guide them to achieving goals resulting from the mission and vision." This is true for the fire service.
He addressed Nos. 2-4 as follows: Great leaders have the ability to look into the future and find the greater good for the organization. They have the ability to build great teams, and to motivate the team to achieve more. Leaders must deal with conflict quickly, openly and consistently, after gathering the relevant facts pertinent to the situation. Decisions are explained to the extent possible, and there is frequent give-and-take communication to ensure conflict does not take away from goals.
His five traits to create a high-performing team are integrity, intelligence, energy, confidence and humility.
Dick shared some further insights about good leaders: Leaders need to be good communicators and excellent listeners. Good leaders are able to listen to their people, even when they are unhappy and work toward problem resolution. A good leader’s job is to support his team; a person with a servant leader attitude usually has the best chance for long-term success.
Finally, Dick noted there are times when a leader must rid the organization of bad actors that undermine everyone around them.
Diverse ideas, faith and fun
My second good friend who I reached out to on this subject is Mike, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry and owned his own business before selling it to GE. Mike serves on the board of directors of several companies.
My first question to Mike was about the importance of diverse ideas in achieving success. Mike strongly believes that without a diversity of ideas, teams have a potential of catastrophic failure. He said Clayton Christensen’s book "The Innovator’s Dilemma" provides examples of once-great companies that overlooked new ideas, which ultimately put them out of business.
I then asked Mike to comment on how government leaders at the local level can learn from the private sector. His answer was spot on: Set a clear vision, achieve something that is sustainable, not temporary, establish a discipline toward a common goal, be creative and set the bar high.
Finally, Mike shared his thoughts on what makes others follow a leader. Simply put, Mike listed vision, faith, belief that something can be achieved that nobody else has done, collaboration and having fun.
Be yourself, humble and positive
I then interviewed John, whom I’ve known eight years. John is an attorney and is well read on many subjects. His perspective was different from my first two friends, but valuable nonetheless.
John said the primary attribute of being a leader is simply to be yourself. To lead others, a person cannot pretend to be someone other than himself. You cannot fake it with those who know you. They will see through you as a fake and think of you as a fraud.
A good leader can be quietly assertive or loud and bombastic — just as long as it’s a true representation. John pointed to John Wooden, Vince Lombardi, Bobby Knight, General George Patton, President George Washington and President Dwight D. Eisenhower as leaders who maintained total transparency.
Secondly, John said it is important to be humble. No matter who you are, you don’t know everything. A good leader surrounds himself with people who may be smarter than he is. Take advice and make decisions based on the best sense of the matter, and outline a plan.
And don’t ask anyone to do anything that you would not do yourself. Lead the charge. Keep a positive attitude as people will not follow a negative mindset.
Camaraderie, core values
The following leadership advice comes from people I don’t know personally but I have come to admire their accomplishments and perspectives from reading their stories and listening to their speeches.
Sir Ernest Shackleton lived from 1874 to 1922. His story is well-known. His book "Shackleton’s Way" is a great story of how his leadership led his men through an unbelievable journey into the Antarctic wilderness. I cannot begin to cover all the elements of this man’s ability to lead, so if you are curious I suggest you read his book.
Some of the takeaways for me were Shackleton’s ability to keep his team moving forward. Each chapter is a lesson in leadership. Chapter topics included: hiring an outstanding crew, creating a spirit of camaraderie, getting the best from each individual, leading effectively in a crisis, forming teams for tough assignments, and overcoming obstacles to reach a goal.
Shackleton did not accomplish his goal of crossing the Antarctic, yet he remains an incredible leader who left us with valuable lessons. Some of his quotes on leadership are in the back of the book. A few of my favorites are:
"Optimism is true moral courage."
"Leadership is a fine thing, but it has its penalties. And the greatest penalty is loneliness."
"I have often marveled at the thin line which separates success from failure." "If you’re a leader, a fellow that other fellows look to, you’ve got to keep going."
Last, but certainly not least, is Lou Holtz, one of my favorite leaders living today. He is humble and funny. He is most well known as the former football coach at Notre Dame; his character and wisdom set him apart. I want to share some insight he gave to a large group of CEOs.
When asked what his secret was as the leader of Notre Dame football, Holtz replied: "I am not the leader of Notre Dame football until the players determine that."
He went on to say that a vision is everything. Without it, you have nothing. Holtz is a big believer in core values. This holds true in family, country and business. Core values are the glue that keeps it all together.
His three core values are: Do the right thing, do everything to the best of your ability with time allotted, and we are all going to care about one another. He also has some rules of life: "There’s a rule of life that says you’re either growing or you’re dying."
And finally, Holtz believes there are four things you need in life. Without these, you will have a tremendous void:
Something to do
Someone to love
Someone to believe in
Something to hope for
Leaders can never stop evolving. We all know inspirational people — ask questions and learn from them. Someday, you will be on the receiving end of an interview about your great leadership skills.
David Cain was deputy chief with the Boulder (Colo.) Fire Department for 34 years. Since his retirement in 2013, he has worked as a consultant for PSTrax.com, a cloud-based service that digitizes fire department apparatus and equipment checks. You can reach Chief Cain at email@example.com or 303-972-9444.