On leadership: Climbers up the greasy pole, the power of listening, the value of experience, and more

Great leaders, even good leaders, are all too rare these days. From a selection of past blog posts, here are some ideas about leadership, how to sort the wheat from the chaff, and what leadership qualities are best for our organizations and society at large:

1. You want good leaders? (2010) — Folks, I’ve been pushing the article discussed here for years. It’s an address by writer William Deresiewicz to West Point cadets. Here’s how I intro it in the blog post:

Attention organizations: If you want good leaders, then don’t promote the kiss ups, the kick downs, the scheming hoop-jumpers, and the ambitious conformists. Instead, select folks of genuine vision, courage, character, and good judgment.

Don’t take my word for it. Instead, read this remarkable address to West Point cadets by writer William Deresiewicz, titled “Solitude and Leadership,” and published in the American Scholar. It’s worth reading in its entirety.

Deresiewicz writes brilliantly, insightfully about a crisis of leadership in America whereby “excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole.” It screams with truth. If you read one article on leadership this year, maybe this decade, make it this one. Take a look at my short summary and then read the whole article.

2. Want a better company? Listen to your employees! (2010) — There’s nothing radical about listening to your employees and giving credit when it is due. Peter Drucker said it for years:

The late Peter Drucker, management guru and author, likely would approve of these practices. In his book Managing for the Future (1992), he extolled the virtues of employee input and participation in problem solving.

Early 20th century industrial theory, he noted, believed in “the wisdom of the expert” and regarded mid-level managers and rank-and-file workers as a bunch of “dumb oxen.” World War II changed that philosophy, however, for when all the experts were in uniform, “we had to ask the workers.” Companies quickly learned that input from workers could increase productivity and improve quality.

3. Great organizational leaders empower and enable others (2011) — Quality leaders know that it’s not all about them:

But when it comes to leading organizations, the ability and willingness to encourage, support, mentor, inspire, and permit others to do quality work is the key to success. These leaders allow people to run with things, responsibly but enthusiastically, and sometimes the results can be extraordinary.

4. When survival is at stake, we need grounded leaders (2012) — We may be swept away by folks who exude vision and charisma, but especially during tough times, we need leaders with strong inner cores:

But I confess that my own experience has taught me also to look closely at leaders who guide their organizations through difficult times with integrity and wisdom.

The best of these leaders arrive at tough decisions fairly and then stand behind them. They take responsibility for measures that may be painful. They don’t seek glory, but rather carry a sense of duty. And their actions are guided by qualities of vision that may have to be temporarily sacrificed during their tenure.

5. Great leadership rarely appears overnight (2012) — Lessons for today on the value of experience from an excellent book about U.S. Navy admirals during the Second World War:

In many historical accounts of the Pacific naval war, these men are presented to us as fully-formed leaders. The Admirals, however, begins with their early lives and careers, and it is chock full of accounts that show us how many of their critical successes during the war can be traced back to their pre-war education, training, and experiences. When they had to step up, they were ready.

. . . In today’s society, we worship and celebrate youth, and this extends to those we anoint as leaders. All too often, in every sector of society, we elevate people to senior leadership positions before they are ready, and not infrequently we pay a price for their inexperience.

6.  On leadership: Genius makers vs. vampires (2013) — You may see some people you know in one of these categories:

The genius makers are “excited about revealing others’ smarts,” “open to creating a shared vision,” and engaged in “creating organizational energy.”

The vampires are “obsessed with proving” their own smarts, focused on others’ flaws, and committed to “sucking the lifeblood out of innocent people.”

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