How To Lead

An easy to read primer on leadership.

 

I saw an interview with the philanthropist David Rubenstein on Face The Nation recently.
Mr. Rubenstein just released a book on leadership that waits for me patiently on my night stand each evening.
In the book, Rubenstein talks with a variety of successful leaders and distills some of the things they’ve learned along the way.
I was sold on the book by his answer to this question by host John Dickerson.
“What do you look for in a leader?”

DAVID RUBENSTEIN: I’m looking for their ability to focus, their ability to communicate well, their ability to have some sense of priority of what’s most important to them, their ability to inspire people, their ability to rise to the occasion. And I also think humility is important. Anybody that is really a successful leader I think has failed in life. And you have to persist after your failures. But failure gives you some humility.”


Isn’t that cool? I mean, doesn’t that sum it up?
Let’s break it down.
Focus: the best leaders I’ve seen are focused on goals. They don’t get distracted by bright shiny objects and they don’t let distractions throw them off their game. In other words, they don’t major in the minor. A good local example is former Mayor Dave Schmidt.
I learned many things sitting next to David for my first three years on the commission. Mayor Dave was focused on the big picture and always exhibited calm under fire. And he faced some raging ones: protests against the move of Atlantic High School and the discovery that several of the 9/11 terrorists were living in Delray which put an international media spotlight on our town. Regardless of what was thrown at him, Mayor Schmidt kept his eyes on the prize and made sure his fellow commissioners did so as well. 
Communication: Good leaders communicate. They have an ability to explain their positions and views. And they take the time to do so.
I thought former Mayor Tom Lynch did a great job articulating the city’s goals, aspirations and potential when he served from 1990-1996. I was a young reporter back then, assigned to cover city government. I always knew where the city was headed because Tom was a consistent and reliable communicator.
A sense of what’s important: Great leaders want to accomplish something. They don’t seek power for power’s sake. For the good ones, it’s a job to do, not a job to have.
I kept that phrase in my wallet through my term in office. It means that you are willing to lose your seat if it means doing the right thing for the city. Sometimes that means taking positions that are not the most popular at the time but that you know is the right thing to do for the community long term. Great leaders are willing to plant trees knowing they won’t be the ones to enjoy the shade.
An ability to inspire: I’ve seen some good leaders who were lacking in charisma, but that’s not the same as inspiration. A solid steady leader can be quietly inspiring. Why? Because they are solid and steady.
Former Chamber President Bill Wood did have charisma. And he was also very inspiring because he was reliably optimistic, had a wonderful sense of humor and a warmth that made everyone in his presence feel good. Consequently, he made businesses feel good about being in Delray. That’s an intangible that is hard to place a value on.

Rising to the Occasion: Good leaders have a way of meeting the challenges they are presented with. So if tragedy strikes they meet the moment with compassion. If there’s some sort of disaster (man made or natural) they have a way of handling it that calms the community and helps inspire confidence in the future. My local examples for this item are former police chief Rick Overman and former fire chief Kerry Koen. 
Both leaders were battle tested and enjoyed widespread support among the troops and the broader community. So during hurricanes or difficult incidents —which are par for the course in their line of work —they always rose to the occasion and you felt that everything would be OK. Steady hands during stormy seas..invaluable. 
Leaders who rise to the occasion find ways to create wins even when the going gets tough. 
Consequently, if there’s an opportunity they can seal the deal.

Humility and Failure: The best leaders are humble, real, honest and service oriented. I also happen to think a sense of humor is enormously important. The best leaders can admit when they are wrong and are committed to personal and professional growth. They have an ability to evolve. They know they aren’t the smartest person in the room and seek to surround themselves with people they can learn from. I call it intellectual humility. Those that have it can learn from others. Those who think they know it all, really don’t. 
I also think that failure is an important life experience. Failure informs. It keeps us humble and enables us to learn critical lessons. 
A good leader knows that as long as you learn from mistakes and don’t repeat them the experience is not really a failure at all.
As we edge toward national, state and local elections in November and again in March it may be helpful to review this list of traits and see how the candidates measure up. 
 
 

 

Comments

  1. Felix Fusco says:

    Good morning Jeff,
    Once again a inspiring read to start the day. Thank you. In my experiences in leadership positions I have always practiced these attributes but never really reached the level of perfection that I desired. But I continue each day making small steps on a upward trajectory. The one single thing that you mentioned that has always been my mantra and I rarely fade at is I remind myself that “ I am not the smartest person in the room”. Along with be humble these two things cultivate servant leaders.
    Thanks again,
    Have a great day and be safe.
    Felix

    • Jeff Perlman says:

      So well said, Felix.
      Humility in a leader is rarely talked about but essential. Those who are open to learning from others will succeed. Those who don’t know what they don’t know will inevitably be tripped up.
      Best, Jeff

  2. Kerry Koen says:

    Thanks for your kind words. Leadership is one thing and team work is another. Both have to be in place to match the task at hand. If the “troops” know the purpose and direction of the exercise, there isn’t much you can’t accomplish, but constant communication with all involved throughout the incident is essential. Folks like to know how things are progressing.

    Kerry Koen

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