Disclaimer: Some folks are of the opinion that I don’t have very good leadership skills; I expect they will comment on this blog in numbers and you should listen to them. After all, truth is where you find it, to quote St. Augustine. But along the way I have been asked to do increasingly difficult things in increasingly larger organizations, so there may be something of benefit that I can pass along to you.
The US government spent a lot of the taxpayer’s money to send me to school to learn about leadership. Over the years, I attended classes including several week-long intensive sessions at remote locations, and several extended part-time, classes of a few hours every week for several weeks at the home business site. Along the way there have been innumerable talks, presentations, and seminars on leadership. If that was not enough, I have a whole shelf of leadership and management books which my senior supervisors have given me to read.
Some of these books and classes have been good, especially the basic ones that I got when first promoted to supervision. At that time, we had small children in my household and I marveled that many of the “leadership” techniques were almost identical with good childrearing methods! And vice versa I must add. Much that I learned in those early leadership classes really was more useful to me raising children than running an organization. Sadly, many of the later classes in leadership were much less useful; good for networking maybe, but not to improve leadership skills.
The management tomes that collect dust on my bookshelf are useful: they impress visitors. Most are full of baloney and are hardly useful in the type of organizations I found myself in.
There is one real value in reading books on leadership – they tell you a lot about the person who gave the book to you. That is valuable knowledge when dealing with superiors. There is a booming business in books on the subject of leadership and I have been tempted to write one myself – just to see if writing books can be profitable.
Recently I have been doing a lot of thinking about leadership skills and how to acquire them. And I have come to the conclusion that the place where I learned the most about leadership is the Boy Scouts.
OK, you are thinking, we are really finding out something about Wayne.
Let me clarify, I am not talking about skills learned long ago when I was a Boy Scout. Rather, about skills I learned more recently when I was a Boy Scout leader. My son spent more than a decade in scouts, and my daughter even spent several years in the Boy Scout’s co-ed Venture program. All those years, I was a volunteer leader. That is where I learned the most about leadership.
I learned almost as much volunteering with the schools and working on committees at church. If you can organize, motivate, corral, and otherwise get a group of volunteers to accomplish something, then, in my experience, you have learned some real leadership skills. In a job situation a supervisor has all kinds of tools to work with – bonuses, and disciplinary actions, awards, promotions, and even the threat of firing (and yes, I have seen even civil servants fired). In a volunteer organization you have none of these. But, as I found out thorough painful experience, none of those workplace tools really motivates folks as much as the techniques I learned in volunteer organizations.
In scouts, we adults taught a course entitled “junior leadership training”. I learned a lot more teaching that course and watching the results than I did in any of those pricy training classes the government sent me to.
So let me enumerate some lessons that may be useful to you in leadership:
1. You don’t have all the answers. In the JLT class they taught about the “big boss” style of leadership where one guy is so much smarter than everybody else that he is the natural leader and everybody follows him unconditionally and the results are always successful. This happens only in Hollywood movies. Nobody has all the answers; nobody can see the whole picture. In real world organizations, a smart leader listens to everybody and learns from everybody and decisions are really made by group consensus. Yep, that’s been my experience. A real leader recognizes when somebody else’s idea is better than his and is flexible enough to embrace that better idea and set the organization in motion to do things in a way that he did not originally plan. The military may work differently but I have seen a lot of senior rank retired military guys fail basic civilian leadership because they didn’t follow this rule.
2. A leader really and truly has to care about his people, their families, their non-work situation, their whole lives. This cannot be a sham for manipulation purposes because folks will quickly find that out. If you don’t have an earnest sense of caring for the wholeness of people that work with you, you will never be a real leader.
3. A leader has to have a vision and has to be able to communicate it so that others can see the vision too. This doesn’t have to be a unique vision, but a leader without a vision of what the group/organization should achieve is not a leader but a manager who is filling bureaucratic squares.
4. A leader has to admit when he is wrong. We are all on the “naughty list” some time. People will respect you when you own up to your shortcomings and will not be fooled for a minute when you cover up. Enough said.
5. Sometimes a leader has to keep his doubts private. Everybody gets discouraged sometimes. A great aphorism states that every successful project looks like a failure half way through. If the course is good and the plan is good, sometimes the leader must project positivism to keep the team going when thing are not going well. If the leader gives voice to doubts and despair, expect the team to quit.
I would sum this all up in saying that a real leader must demonstrate to his people that he is worthy of being followed. You earn the right to be a leader. A position can be awarded, authority can be conferred, but leadership is earned.