Leadership Lessons from the Front Lines
OPERATIONAL INSIGHT - NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2011
In 1943 I enlisted in the U.S. Army, less frightened at the prospect of going to war than eager to see where life would take me. The war gave me a great gift: It offered me the opportunity, at age 19, to lead others.
As a soldier, I learned weapons, communications, land navigation and tactics, but above all, I learned leadership. I learned how to work as part of a team. I learned that one of my most important jobs was to take care of my people. There, I learned the skills and habits that have served me well my entire life.
Traditionally, people curious about leadership look to the heroic biographies of Roosevelt, Churchill and other iconic figures. In 1985, after spending several years as a professional researcher in the nascent discipline of leadership, I had something else in mind—a study that might help readers, such as you, small business owners, develop their own leadership skills. This hadn’t really been done before. Among the essential traits for someone to succeed in a leadership role, we found, are empathy, respect and insight in dealing with others.
Here is some of my best advice to achieve those traits.
• Listen. It’s an art, a demanding one that requires you to tamp down your ego and make yourself fully available to
others. As a listener, you must stop performing and only hear and process. If you listen closely enough, you can understand what the speaker really means. Paying undivided, respectful attention inevitably makes you more empathetic, and empathy is one of the most important and most undervalued leadership skills.
• The leader of a group must never get overly involved with its sickest member. The temptation is always there, since the most troubled member is often the biggest challenge. But the leader who turns into a referee pays a terrible price. The group will become polarized. The only way to deal with the problem is to allow the healthier members of the group to handle it collectively.
• It is clear that it’s not charisma, but the ability to inspire trust that allows leaders to recruit others. The 29 men and women I featured in my book On Becoming a Leader all understood themselves, as well as the world in which they lived and worked. Likewise, for my book Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge, I interviewed 90 people, two-thirds of whom were heads of major corporations and the rest successful entrepreneurs. Most of the leaders I spoke to had sharp, nuanced insights into the skills and attributes that allow a person to engage others.
In my bones, I’ve always known how important leadership is. The very quality of our lives depends on it. We are social animals, and our packs need leaders. We need and seek honest, competent leaders in every area of our lives—government, the workplace, social organizations, schools.
Good or bad, leaders shape our destinies.
Warren Bennis is a distinguished professor of business administration at the University of Southern California and author of the recently published Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership.