In 1998, Northwest Airlines endured a strike by its pilots, who were members of the Airline Pilots Association. One day while transiting the Memphis airport, I asked one of the picketing pilots what the strike was all about. After ascertaining that I was not a reporter, he gave me his view on the matter.
He told me that nearly 3 decades prior, he had been shot at on a daily basis while flying F-4 Phantom jets off a carrier deck in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Viet Nam war. It was a job that provided him a salary of about $20,000, and personal living space aboard the carrier of fewer than 50 square feet. He then told me that while his current job paid him about 10 times as much, affording him a 6,000 square foot home, and no bullet holes in his aircraft, the old job was better, much better than his current gig. Responding to my rather obvious question as to why, he said, “Well, Mr. consultant, I know you guys like things in short, 3 word bursts, so I’ll give you one… It’s leadership, stupid!” He went on to define, with all the grace and precision of a laser-guided smart bomb, the differences between his former and then current leadership groups.
If, as a nation, we’ve ever been in a “It’s Leadership, Stupid” moment, it is now. As profiled in our new book, Rebooting Leadership, Harvard professor, Bill George has very aptly noted that the near collapse of our financial system (and ongoing debacles) had less to do with subprime mortgages than with subprime leadership. Truer words were never spoken.
In that vein, I will submit that rather than wait for someone in elected office to do the job, each of us should bear just a little more perhaps than our rightful share of responsibility, and take steps individually and collectively to pull our national automobile out of the ditch, onto the road, and set it in motion in the right (make that correct) direction.
Following are five leadership precepts that we would do well to heed at the moment:
Leaders are Optimists
Operating on the well-proven premise that you get what you expect to get, leaders are optimists. They wreak optimism. They realize that for the same reason that crowds associated with parades almost always out-number those at funerals, people will not follow a pessimist for long.
As a nation, we need to get our heads out of… the sand (I’m so tempted to say something much more graphic), and realize that America’s future is as bright today as it ever was. We just need to get our mojo back. We may not have the market cornered on brains and good ideas, but we have more than our fair share. We have abundant (yes, abundant) natural resources, including hydrocarbons that burn. Though failed by individuals at times, we have a system of government that works for the most part, and let’s be reminded that it’s a damned sight better than all the others. Most of all, we have our liberty. So, step #1 to regaining our altitude is to fix our attitude, each of us. The “good ‘ole days” weren’t all that great, and today is not as terrible as the folks on the cable “news” outlets would have us believe. And yes, I lost a bunch of money in the market this month, too.
Leaders Display Courage
Courage is defined neither by the absence of fear, nor an overabundance of brass (as in cojones). Rather, courage is at once a matter of being willing to stand tall in the face of both physical and moral pressure or threat, to be willing to do what is right regardless of possible pain, discomfort, economic loss, or unpopularity. You are afraid, but you proceed anyhow.
So, too, is courage a matter of being willing to act in the face of uncertainty. If I hear one more business leader whine that the uncertainty of tomorrow is keeping them from taking steps today to grow their business, I’m going to puke on their wingtip loafers. As Warren Buffett put it recently, “In the business world, the rearview mirror is always clearer than the windshield.” There is always the risk that the world will end tomorrow, too, but we don’t hold our breath just in case it does.
Each of us needs to summon that moment from our youth, or some other time in our lives, when we stared down a mean looking dog and continued walking down the street. Just as a congressman (or woman) with an ounce of courage would say, “no” as readily to Grover Norquist as they would the Teamster’s Union, each of us must find it in ourselves to call bullies or haters by their rightful names, and evict those who like to yell, “fire” from crowded theaters. Why not insist that facts, rather than partisan objectives and shrill rhetoric rule the day for a while?
Leaders Build Commitment
The process of harnessing the attention and effort of others begins deep within the leader themselves. We must be masters of our own time, priorities, and attention if we’re asking others to follow us. We must have, and be able to credibly articulate an abiding sense of purpose, direction, and priority.
In his book, Beating the Street, uber-successful investor, Peter Lynch maintained that people ought not invest in something unless they could explain it with a crayon. The same holds true for those of us who would lead others. If we can’t explain with that same blunt instrument what we’re about and where we’re going, then we can’t explain it well enough for today’s rightfully cynical audience, and people won’t buy it. Mr. President, take note.
We must ask and expect that our elected representatives focus like a laser on things that really matter, and that are in our strategic national interest. There will always be 2nd and 3rd tier issues that can be dealt with as time permits, but at this point we have neither the time nor other resource to deal with them. If, as Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has suggested, we should get their attention by withholding campaign contributions until they figure this out, so be it.
Leaders Subordinate Self Interest
If we, as leaders, are to have any hope of gaining the commitment of followers in any endeavor, we must elevate the legitimate interests of the organization and those we lead above our own selfish wants and ambitions. We don’t have to take a vow of poverty or anything, just remain very clear about whom we are there to serve.
Indeed, one of the chief causes of the aforementioned pilot strike at Northwest Airlines was that senior, C-level officers had, at the same time that they were forcing pay cuts on company employees, like hogs at the trough, taken overt, outrageous steps to enrich themselves.
Similarly, the most glaring leadership failure of the recent debt ceiling fiasco was the nearly unanimous disregard for the financial security and reputation of an entire nation, in pursuit of narrow, partisan, and in some cases, personal interests. Many of our so-called “leaders” (more accurately, “politicians”) seemed only too willing to drag Americans (indeed the world) through weeks of clumsy, bad faith negotiations with the attendant anxiety and uncertainty, willing to allow the nation to go into default, but by golly, they weren’t going to abandon their “ideals” or do anything that might risk their political standing. In choosing such a path, many may have created their own term limits (so maybe something good will come from it, after all). Nonetheless, I’ve seen 3 year-olds behave in less self-serving ways than our elected officials have of late.
Leaders are Grown-Ups With High Standards
Deep down, we all understand that high standards are a necessary precursor to winning, and let’s face it, none of us get up in the morning saying, “I wanna go lose today. I want to hang out with mediocre people and do some really crummy work for a third rate company, or live in a AA+ nation.”
We must accept the fact that America will be exceptional only so long as we, each of us, maintains an adult perspective and is willing to live up to high standards. Whenever high standards and lofty expectations get divorced from one another, the outcome is akin to what happened at Chrysler and GM and Lehman Brothers.
Not everybody deserves an “A’, re-appointment, or re-election. Sometimes, “no” really does mean no. We can start by explaining that to our kids, together with the fact that life is not a TV reality game where the losers are voted off the island, but get to come back at season’s end.
I, for one, firmly believe that America’s glass is indeed half full and that our best days really are ahead of us. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t want to be here. Let’s get going.
A pathfinder in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette is a seminar leader, keynote speaker, and executive coach. He helps individuals and organizations improve business outcomes by having a focused, engaged, capably led workforce. He is co-author of the newly released book,Rebooting Leadership. For more information about Bill, his partner Richard Hadden, and their work, please visit their website, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ContentedCows