A Knowledge Sharing Community
By Michael L Wilson
After I graduated Army Officer Candidate School, I asked one of the instructors why the officer training program had to be so hard. He said “the training is hard because leadership is hard”. I didn’t understand that initially, but after serving as platoon leader and company commander in various army units, as well as serving a tour in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I understood it all too well. Leadership, in any type of organization, is a difficult task, yet, with the exception of family, I can think of no other responsibility that is as rewarding. I remember watching an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Commander Riker was undecided about taking command of his own ship. He turned to Captain Picard for advice, and Captain Picard told him there was no substitute for “holding the reins”. This is so true. If you are the leader of an organization, you have the tremendous opportunity to ensure that organization or department you lead vibrates with your passion and ideas. But while you’re holding the reins, a good leader will always stay grounded by a few key leadership qualities. To deviate from either one could spell disaster for any leader.
In my experience as a leader, I found the ability to communicate to be the most important quality of a leader. Communication is a two-way street. It’s not just important that you talk to your subordinates; it’s equally as important that they understand what is being said to them. If you are to be an effective, you need to understand that your subordinates have different opinions, values, and beliefs which will affect the receiving of information. A good leader will strive to have an understanding of the perspectives of others and will foster an environment that is conducive to the exchanging of ideas. Now, I mentioned that communication is a two-way street but I didn’t say that the leader was restricted to one end of that street while the subordinate is restricted to the other end. Good communication on the part of the leader also involves the ability to listen. Listening to your subordinates allows you understand them and ultimately helps you to lead them.
Your character as a leader is what’s going to earn you the respect of your subordinates. Character and integrity go hand in hand. As a leader, you should make every effort to remain honest, firm, fair, and consistent with your staff. An inconsistent and dishonest leader will never gain respect and, in time, can tear down an organization. A leader of good character will gain the trust and admiration of his or her subordinates. Be careful not to confuse character and charisma as most people do. They are not the same. Someone once referred to me as a charismatic leader and I politely corrected them. I lump Hitler, Jim Jones, and Alexander the Great in the category of charismatic leadership. A charismatic leader can convince you that the sky is pink. A leader of character will always commit themselves to the truth. A charismatic leader will only gain temporary loyalty while the loyalty to a leader of character endures forever.
When I was going through officer candidate school, we were on a field maneuver and the instructor told us that above all else, a leader must make a decision. Even if it’s just to order your troops to drink water, at least you made a decision. One morning, around 2 a.m. while out on patrol, our platoon came under simulated hostile fire. While in a heated exchange of gun fire, our platoon leader, unsure of what orders to give, yelled “DRINK WATER!” While my classmates and I still laugh about that, we understood the point. Leaders need to be able to make decisions and not shy away from decision-making out of fear of making the wrong decision. You will make mistakes and will even choose the incorrect course of action at some point, but subordinates will follow a leader that is not afraid to make a decision. No one wants to follow someone who doesn’t know what decisions to make or is too afraid to make a decision.
Leadership is indeed a difficult responsibility. Unfortunately, there is no pixy dust to use or magic spells to conjure that would ensure you success as a leader. At the end of the day, being a good leader is a practice. The most effective leaders consider themselves to be students of the art because they understand that there is always room to grow; always room for improvement. If you are in a leadership position, or are soon to occupy one, be a good student of the art of leadership.