Sam Allen was the son of a Jewish baker from Moldavia. The eldest in a large family, he joined the Tsar’s infantry not because he was a patriot, nor because he particularly aspired to military service, but simply because he needed money to assure that his family had enough to eat. Nevertheless, that was an excellent decision. He was good at the job, quickly advancing through the ranks to become a lieutenant, the highest position achievable without buying his commission.
In the fall of 1917, however, everything changed…
Awakened in the dead of night, the first thing Sam noticed was that his troops were armed. He was shocked, as no one was supposed to carry weapons in the barracks during peacetime, but before he could ask about what was going on, they handed him civilian clothes, forced him to get dressed at gunpoint, and then marched him to the gate. There the men paused, fished through their pockets for what little money they had available, handed him some cash, and told him to leave and not come back. Confused, disoriented, he began walking down the road when heard gunshots ringing out behind him.
Within a few days it became clear that every other officer in his unit was murdered that night, most in their sleep. If you haven’t already guessed, that was the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Sam had a problem. He was caught up in a civil war, with one side wanting him dead and the other thinking that he already was. One of his brothers had traveled to America and he figured that was as good a destination as any, so over the next several months he worked a variety of odd jobs to earn enough money to pay his passage.
He was on his way to board the boat when he ran across a group of soldiers from his former command. They had already spotted him, so he couldn’t sneak away. He approached with trepidation, yet to his surprise and relief they greeted him warmly. After a short conversation he marshaled the courage to ask why of all the officers they had let him live, a fact that he was grateful for, but that had bothered him for quite some time. Their response:
“We were ordered to kill all the officers, but in your case we just couldn’t do it. You’re the only one who treated us like we were people.”
Sam’s life had been spared because unlike the other officers he intuitively knew that leadership was not about him. It was about offering his best so that others could find the best in themselves. While leadership can stem from authority, being in charge is by no means a prerequisite to lead. He was a junior officer, a peasant not an aristocrat, yet he set an example that others wished to follow.
When leaders do not exhibit good character those around them figure it out. The team may continue to comply with directions, but they will no longer be committed to the cause. While this rarely ends in violence, leaders who lose the respect of their team virtually always fail. In order to succeed never forget the imperative from Lieutenant Allen: Leadership isn’t about you. It’s about giving back, offering your best to others so that they can find the best in themselves.
There are seven attributes of effective leadership. These include:
Consistency: earning trust and respect through integrity and dependability. Subordinates, peers, and superiors all know what to expect when interacting with this person. Reliably meets commitments.
Visionary: conveys a sense of purpose that motivates others. Able to define a strategic direction and success criteria, balance big-picture concerns with day-to-day issues, set priorities, and continuously course-correct as necessary to achieve results.
Fairness: open-minded. Treats people impartially and objectively. Creates an atmosphere where folks feel comfortable bringing up problems, taking measured risks, and suggesting innovative alternatives.
Honesty: means what they say and says what they mean. Keeps confidences, models integrity, and bounds pursuit of individual objectives with the overall interests of the organization or team.
Courageousness: models confidence. Sees changes as opportunities and demonstrates a willingness to do the right things even when they are not expedient or politically easy.
Inspirational: builds teams whose performance is greater than the sum of their parts. Celebrates successes and learns from failures, leverages diversity, and sets people up for success.
Productivity: keeps promises and delivers results. Capitalizes on unanticipated opportunities and changing circumstances to meet commitments despite challenges. Continuously improves quality and performance.
It is imperative to be aware of people in your sphere of influence who set a good example by consistently demonstrating these seven leadership attributes. These individuals show up on time, work diligently, perform well, help others, and are a real asset to the team. Every reasonable effort should be exerted to motivate, train, and retain them.
To create leaders you need to help folks acquire the knowledge, skills, and ability for success, give them a chance to lead, and get out of the way of their progress. Oftentimes the challenge is how to go about doing it. You likely already know who your superstar(s) are, but what about the rest of your team? Are there unsung heroes in your group who just need that one opportunity to shine?
One way to find out is to build a simple two-axis table showing “leadership potential” and “experience” on a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high). Plot the names of everyone in your charge on that page. You can develop discrete criteria for each rating, and should if it will be used in any formal Human Resources process such as succession planning, but even a subjective “gut check” placement should prove illuminating when that level of formality is not required. At a glance you can identify future leaders who need your support.
Here’s an example of what the output might look like:
Vicky is the current star, but Fred and Manny are likely to become the future if given the opportunity. Conversely, they are also likely to seek better prospects elsewhere if not provided challenging assignments that help them grow their skills in a timely manner.
It is important to note that people in the lower right segment in this example like Joel or Robert, who have a lot of experience but minimal leadership potential, are not necessarily poor performers or unmanageable employees. They are likely subject matter experts whose capabilities are vital to your organization but who lack the interest or ability to lead. Don’t dismiss these individuals out of hand, but rather find ways to leverage their talents for the mutual betterment of themselves and the organization. These folks often make terrific mentors so long as you can help them see the role as an opportunity and not as a threat, assuring that key technical or process information is safeguarded rather than leaving it as tribal knowledge that is only maintained in somebody’s head.
People like Sally or Molly on the lower left segment in our example, on the other hand, may be new hires or internal transfers who need focused training or mentoring in order to learn their responsibilities and get up to speed efficiently. Think more about
who they need to know than what they need to know; tools and processes alone are insufficient in such cases. Provide interactions with subject matter experts to build support networks, insight into the organization’s culture so that they will understand how to get things done, and meaningful assignments to hone their skills while doing it. Prudent investments in on-boarding will help increase productivity and morale while simultaneously reducing turnover.
Now that you understand the process, here’s your “homework” assignment:
Build a 5x5 leadership matrix and assign a spot for everyone on your team. Once complete, choose someone with high leadership potential who has not had a chance to grow their skills recently and find a project that is both a learning experience and an opportunity to make a real difference.
What if you don’t have a team? Guess what, you get to do this exercise anyway. You may think that you need to be in charge in order to give aspiring leaders development opportunities, but that is not necessarily the case. Mentoring takes place at all levels within organizations. If you are not able to assign work, you can always ask for help. Leverage your network, talk to the folks in charge, and more often than not you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how well things turn out.
There are lots of ways to give people who deserve it a shot. Consider things like opportunities to lead high visibility procurements, process improvement efforts, strategy sessions, or make/buy workshops. Alternate ideas might include leading non-advocate reviews to resolve contract or supplier relationship challenges, performing quality assurance reviews of critical RFx documents, or representing the company at industry conferences.
Set guiderails where you must, and be a resource when you can, but be cautious not to micromanage the aspiring leader to whom you have given this opportunity. In order to grow and mature, folks need freedom to figure things out for themselves. Just because someone is inexperienced does not mean that they should only be allowed to perform entry-level work.
About the Author
Lawrence Kane is responsible for IT Infrastructure Strategy, Sourcing, and Asset Management execution at Boeing. He architected the IT infrastructure strategy, governed the software asset management process, established the sourcing office, hired and developed a high-performance team, and saved more than $1.5B by architecting the IT infrastructure sourcing strategy, designing the proposal evaluation process, executing RFPs, negotiating with providers and benchmarking the effectiveness of resultant deals. He is also the best-selling author of eleven books, including two
USA Book News Best Books Award finalists, an eLit Book Awards Bronze prize, a
Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist, and two ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award finalists. The preceding article was based on his book
Sensei Mentor Teacher Coach: Powerful Leadership for Leaderless Times.