Thoughts on Leadership

I have recently been asked by two organizations to give talks on leadership lessons I’ve learned over a 30-year career in local government. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking but not much writing on the subject because all of my thoughts sound like platitudes to me a few moments after I think them. My hope is that writing some of them down in this column will save me from embarrassment when I get up to speak.

Lesson 1

Leaders must be willing to put the interests of others ahead of their own. My father taught me this lesson when I was a teenager, and I’ve never forgotten it. I’m sure I haven’t always lived up to this ideal, but I have tried hard to practice it throughout my career. Someone who sacrifices on my behalf earns my trust and makes it much easier to follow their direction.

Lesson 2

Look for the best in people. It’s always easy to find something wrong with the people around you if that’s where you choose to focus your efforts. Starting with what’s right helps a leader appreciate the talents of others and makes dealing with failings much easier.

Lesson 3

People need to be able to rely on a leader to live up to her/his word. I have seen far too many relationships damaged by a lack of integrity and the failure to honor commitments. I have also seen many situations where people misinterpret or distort someone’s words and then cry “foul.” Given that misunderstandings will happen even when a leader is trying hard to exercise integrity, the need to be reliable becomes more important.

Lesson 4

Sometimes you have to go fishing. I’ve written about this incident before, but it’s worth repeating. The summer after my first year in college, I worked at a lakeside resort. I had only been there a day or so when I got a report that the toilet in the men’s room was clogged. I tried plunging the toilet with no success, so I went to get help from a fellow who had worked at the resort for a number of years. He took one look at the offending porcelain and plunged his arm into the mess while explaining, “Sometimes you have to go fishing.” He quickly solved the problem by taking direct, albeit disgusting, action. Good leaders do what needs to be done.

Lesson 5

Winston Churchill once observed that his longtime political opponent Clement Atlee was, “A modest man with much to be modest about.” I think Churchill’s barb may apply to all of us. Leaders make mistakes and need to be humble enough to acknowledge when they happen. Always defending or, even worse, covering up failures is a sure way to discourage others. I learned a long time ago that this city manager was almost never the smartest one in the room.

I wrote a column on this subject a while ago, and I’m sure I had some different thoughts about leadership at that time. There are probably hundreds of lessons I’ve learned that can be boiled down to the fact that people deserve leaders who are honest, competent, and kind. These and other attributes may take on increasing or decreasing importance in various situations, but it’s hard to argue that we shouldn’t be led by honest people who know what they are doing while treating others as they would like to be treated.