Take Me to Your Leader

For most small business owners, it takes an acquired skill set to become an effective manager.

Leadership: We hear about the need businesses have for effective leaders, but the question always comes back to this: What is a leader and how can you become one? As a business owner, a CEO, a manager, even a supervisor, learning the basics of leadership is as valuable as any other kind of training you can take. By learning how to lead, and implementing those lessons in your daily life, you can improve not only your own chances for advancement, but you can increase the effectiveness of the people you lead.

There is a story about General Douglas MacArthur. He was riding in a landing craft on his return to the Philippines and with him was the leader of the Philippine government in exile. The man turns to the general and says that he hopes the landing craft comes in close to the shore. He is afraid that his people will see that he cannot swim. MacArthur is said to have answered: “I hope it comes in close as well, or my men will see I cannot walk on water.”

Was that a joke to lighten up a tense moment, or did it reflect something deeper? Few leaders in history have been as idolized by the men they led. Washington, Lee and Andrew Jackson come immediately to mind, so does George Patton and even Erwin Rommel. Yes, they all had strong personalities, but their success was due to more than that. They identified so strongly with their mission and with their men that even if they enjoyed privileges of command—and took advantage of those privileges—there was no doubt among the rank and file that their leader was with them, caring for them, and sharing in their effort and hardship. The question is, how can you get your own people to feel that way about you?

Living Up to the Warrior Ethos

The U.S. Army breaks this down into its Warrior Ethos. Taken from the Soldier’s Creed, these four lines distill the ideal for each and every soldier to live up to. This is not a new idea. Europe had the Chivalric Code; the Japanese Samurai followed Bushido, the Way of the Warrior. Whatever it is called, it really comes down to the same thing: A way of looking at the world that provides a foundation for right action and leadership. The following affirmations make up the Warrior Ethos:

I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.
You may be wondering what all this has to do with business. Oddly enough, it has quite a lot to do with it. If you take the martial spirit out of the Warrior Ethos, what you have are four principles for leading any purpose-driven organization, such as your business.

I will always place the mission first

What is your mission or, more importantly, what is a mission? To know that, you have to have a good understanding of your organization’s vision. Here is the vision of America’s Best Companies:

America’s Best helps small business owners stay in business, grow their businesses, and make more money in their businesses.

In other words, if our members remain in business, grow and flourish, our vision is fulfilled. But, to accomplish that vision, we break it down into a series of missions that, taken together, will accomplish the goal stated in our vision. Our partner discount program is one mission, so is our business resources and information program. Online ads and marketing materials and providing a website for our members—all of these are separate missions within ABC and yet they all contribute to the success of our vision.

As a leader, you must live by the overall vision for your company, but you must also maintain a position that puts the various missions that accomplish that vision first.

I will never accept defeat

and I will never quit

This is more than just sticking to your vision, which is vital. It is about right action. You can have the greatest vision and most compelling missions to support it, but without action it’s all little more than nice words in a business plan. Davy Crockett once said this about making a decision: “Make sure you are right, and then go ahead.” It may sound like simplistic frontier law, but it expresses the idea that you have to act, but cautions you to be sure that you are doing the right thing when you do.

When we speak of never accepting defeat and never quitting, that means you will never stop trying. Some things you do will work brilliantly, some things will fail just as brilliantly. When Thomas Edison was asked about all the failures in his light bulb experiments, his answer was, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

As a leader, you don’t have the luxury of giving up. You don’t get to say it cannot be done. Learn from your failures, as Edison did, and apply that knowledge to your next endeavor. As long as you do not give up the fight, as long as you keep working through your failures, you will never be defeated.

I will never leave a fallen comrade

Everybody comes home. That’s a great sentiment for the battlefield, but how can you apply that to your business? This one is all about your employees.

We always hear about how the most valuable asset of a company is its employees. There are some who actually mean it. Then there are others who seem to mistake the word “valuable” for the word “expensive.” In the last six months, the latter have been laying off employees right and left and the result, an unemployment rate of 9.4 percent; while the former are doing everything they can to keep their people employed.

This is not to say that all job cuts are avoidable. Sometimes they are an unpleasant necessity, but they ought to be a measure of last resort, done after all other alternatives—transfers, pay or work hour cuts, retraining, bringing back outsourced work, etc.—have been tried and failed.

This is as important to you as it is to your employees since your own success is tied to the success of the people who work for you. In his last interview with Forbes, business guru Peter Drucker said:

Successful leaders don’t start out asking, “What do I want to do?” They ask, “What needs to be done?” Then they ask, “Of those things that would make a difference, which are right for me?” They don’t tackle things they aren’t good at. They make sure other necessities get done, but not by them. Successful leaders make sure that they succeed! They are not afraid of strength in others. Andrew Carnegie wanted to put on his gravestone, “Here lies a man who knew how to put into his service more able men than he was himself.”

Everyone in the organization is important, everyone has value and a true leader never gives up on any of them as long as they have not given up on themselves. That is the only game changer, and as long as that is not the case, a leader does his best with the circumstances he is given and the talent and skills of his people to keep his organization intact and functioning. He looks to the future and so shares the hardships and the triumphs, knowing full-well where his own success comes from.

Leadership is many things to many people, but you need to understand that all leaders are, as George Patton said, prima donnas. It’s an attitude that is built on the self-confidence that comes with success and as such it comes with the territory. On the other hand, the good general also advised you to “Always do everything you ask of those you command.” In other words, it is fine to be a prima donna, as long as you are a prima donna who is not so egotistical that you cannot get down in the mud with everyone else. You are there to lead, not to be fawned-over like a rock star. Remember that: If you lead your people from the front and don’t worry about your hands getting dirty, you won’t have to worry about walking on water in front of your people. They’ll carry you.

By Charles Cooper

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