Leading Leaders

Take Charge

If you are in a leadership position, then you must take charge and lead. I call this principle, “Leaders Lead,” the third brick in the foundation of leadership.

“When in command, command.”

– Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN, 1885-1966

Although the term “manager” is a common title in business and public sectors, there is a reason I’ve chosen the word “leader” throughout this book instead of “manager.” We manage things, but we lead people. When I was a very young second lieutenant, a wise lieutenant colonel named Larry Isaacs reminded me during a performance feedback session that “people are not machines.” We can certainly push people, and most people are very willing to work hard when they know they should, but when we cease to see our team as human beings, then we’re entering an organizational death spiral. We need to lead people and treat them like people rather than cogs in some machine that produces a product. It doesn’t mean that the product is not important. No one is in business to provide a hangout for the employees, but “leading people and managing things” means we understand the difference and don’t confuse one for the other. Leading means taking charge and exercising the authority one is given. “Management” is a necessary skill for a leader, but it is not a substitute for leadership.

As I learned early in my time in the Aggie Corps, I’ve learned that leadership is not merely a matter of barking orders or acting “in charge.” The leader has to take charge and make decisions. Even in the military, we rarely bark orders. In an emergency or in combat, certainly, but in our routine day to day it’s best to ensure your teams understand what they’re doing and why. Furthermore, a leader can only “bark” so many times before their team simply tunes out the raised voices. I’ve seen it plenty of times in sports. Teams that are accustomed to hearing their coach yell and make demonstrations simply stop listening to the coach’s histrionics; they’re mentally somewhere else when he is speaking. So yelling and demonstrations simply don’t work very often and neither does rule by fear. If a leader’s only motivational method is fear or arm-waving, he won’t last very long and probably won’t get much accomplished.

In the military, the overarching mission is usually summarized in a statement of “commander’s intent”: an explicitly defined end state or goal of a particular mission. While one might not use the same words in business or sports, the same principle of clearly stating the objective applies. The effective leader ensures people understand what’s required of them, and then she follows up to see the task through to completion. They give their teams a sense of purpose.

Most organizations have more than a single leader. They have “layers of leaders,” and the principle of “Leaders Lead” requires that all leaders exercise their authority. Leaders at all levels should show initiative and work together. If a team leader is waiting for direction, then he is essentially waiting for their boss to make a decision for them. That’s not leading. Furthermore, a “reluctant” leader will only inspire the informal leaders in the group to begin to vie for power. A vacuum must always be filled; if the leader at any level creates a void through inaction, then someone will usually fill that void. It’s a sure bet that the leader won’t have his job for very long. Someone will replace him, the company will fail, or the team will disintegrate.

Now before you get the wrong idea, I’m not advocating leaders exceed their authority, but I am suggesting that leaders should exercise the authority that their boss has vested in them. If they work in an environment where integrity is expected, within a culture of respect, then even a hierarchical organization can be very effective. No matter what the organization looks like on paper, ultimately it’s the relationships that matter.

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