Three Leadership Concepts for Courageous Leaders

Daily commitment to putting these three concepts into practice is required for great leadership.

Three Leadership Concepts for Courageous Leaders
Bruce Engelhardt
August 11, 2022
Leadership & Followership

In today's complex, ever-changing environment, leaders need simplified, practical guidelines to lead: action steps that transcend situational specifics, styles, and cultures. However, the essence of leadership begins with one's character, made up of the core virtues of love, integrity, truth, excellence, and relationships, all empowered by courage. So, as a disclaimer, these three simple concepts to guide one's leadership require the leader to have the courage to lead with character.  If you are a courageous leader, read on.

Eugene Fluckey was a Medal of Honor submarine commander during WWII. In his book, THUNDER BELOW, which recounts his experience during that time, he states that for every situation,  “Life is not long enough to personally garner sufficient experience”. He goes on to say successful leaders must learn from others. In explaining his habit of scouring other Commanding Officer’s patrol reports for ideas, he says, “Otherwise their history of errors is to be repeated." This sentiment is still true today. We must learn from those who have gone before us to be great leaders. While the speed of transformation and technological change has and is increasing, people still respond to the core virtues that make up one's character. The basic actions highlighted below are even more germane in today’s world.

What follows encapsulates what I have learned from scouring my own and others’ “patrol reports” for leadership successes and failures. It is a basic set of leadership actions that still apply to us all.

I. Know your job.

II. Know your team.

III. Serve with humility.

The foundation for great leadership is the thirst for continuous learning, so it is no coincidence that two of these actions begin with the action verb “know”. The third involves serving with humility, which involves a willingness to learn. All leadership begins with learning – learning the purpose and execution requirements for the endeavor, learning your team members, and being willing to serve with an attitude that there is still more to learn.

Know Your Job.

Accomplished leaders get desired and lasting results. Martin Luther King’s movement is a successful one that continues to get results years after he started it.  Jack Welch is considered a great corporate leader, and GE experienced record-breaking profitability during his long tenure as CEO. Are there great leaders who never achieved notoriety or fame? There are many. But in all cases, I believe successful leaders know their jobs – they are competent standard setters and recognized so by others.

Knowing your job has two components – 1) creating purpose and 2) focusing on and achieving excellence.  

Creating Purpose.

True leaders are purpose-driven. To lead you must develop and articulate your strategic purpose or mission – an overarching result that integrates everything you do. This purpose is your “why” and is your desired end state. To be purpose-driven you must have a foundational purpose or you will be lost – either lost in meaningless generalities or lost among mundane details. To use a nautical analogy – you must have a desired destination and set a course to get there. Course corrections are inevitable, and the destination may need to change. You may either reach your destination rapidly or a new destination may be forced on you by fundamental changes in the environment.

What are some best practices in defining your purpose?

  1. Make it a noble purpose. “To become CEO of a Fortune 500 company” or to get “selected to be a 4-star admiral” or “to be the biggest bank ever” might be destinations to drive towards, but would they necessarily be noble ones? A noble purpose might look something like – “to commit through our work at XYZ to improve people's lives.” It doesn't matter what size or type of organization in which you lead, you can always find a way to have a purpose that serves others.
  1. Make it strategic. Include a timeframe and define broad metrics. For example, if you are leading a construction company your purpose might be, “to build things that satisfy our customers and are known for quality and longevity (as measured by….)”.  Your leadership purpose has to be more than a “to do” list.

Achieving Excellence.

Purpose goes hand-in-hand with execution. Without execution, even a perfectly defined purpose is just fantasy.

What are some best practices used by great leaders for successful execution?

  1. They train and then delegate to their trusted team. They don’t try to do it all themselves. Delegation only works if expectations are clear, training is excellent, and accountability is certain.
  2. They welcome and accept feedback and are honest about shortfalls and temporary setbacks – no rose-colored glasses for leaders who execute strategy. They seek feedback and learn continuously from it.
  3. They prioritize and spend time on only the most important tasks before they become urgent. Great leaders do not waste time with unimportant and not urgent items, and they especially do not waste their team's time.

Caveat: knowing your job is not a license for micromanaging. It does involve understanding details, but it is knowing the right details, not every detail.

But knowing your job is not enough.  A leader who focuses solely on knowing their job may achieve successful results in the short term, but it is not sustainable. A leader's success cannot be separated from their team.  Thus, we move to the second concept.

Know your team.

This second action category is a discriminator between mediocre leaders and leaders. Knowing your team involves many actions, such as selecting, building, assessing, training, counseling, empathizing, and forgiving each member.  In other words, it is cultivating healthy relationships.

Why is this category a discriminator? An example of two teams may answer this. Each team has 10 members with an effectiveness score between 1-100.  One hundred represents performance resulting in maximum effectiveness while a score of one represents complete failure.

Team One is the ad hoc average team in the workplace today. Three of the 10 team members are maxing out because they are self-starting, super achievers, so the team starts with an effectiveness score of 300. A leader who has not taken effective action to know his team might get effectiveness scores of 20 from the remaining seven members for total effectiveness of 440.

Team Two has a great leader who does not have the three superstars but knows and builds her team and excels in engagement. This team averages an effectiveness score of 80 for all 10 team members, for a total effectiveness score of 800.

Simple arithmetic shows that the well-led team, Team Two, is almost twice as effective as the poorly led team. Gallup polling supports this example as their research shows that in most workplaces, teams are poorly engaged and look a lot like Team One. In the teams where engagement is high, however, the results measured are exponentially better.

What are some best practices for Know Your Team?

  1. Listen and learn.
    Learn your team members' names. You might be surprised how many team leaders do not know how to spell and pronounce the names of their team members. Learn about their personal goals and family. Listen for their thoughts. Listen to their opinions. Over and over, listen and learn. Good listening means that instead of focusing on what you will say next, you are focused on what is being communicated by the team member (verbally and non-verbally). Pauses and silences are signs of good listening. If what you are hearing from your team seems out of sync with your reality – you have some communications work to do.
  2. Take immediate, decisive actions to effectively address team members' concerns and implement their good ideas.
    A suggestion acted upon effectively will reap rewards over and over again. If you ask a team member “what is one thing I can do to make us a better team?" and enact their suggestion or answer the very next day, you will see amazing results in trust and engagement.
  3. Communicate purpose, expectations, and metrics succinctly and repeatedly.
    An engaged team has buy-in, and the team communicates the purpose and expectations alongside the leader.
  4. Balance large doses of positivity with feedback on lessons learned and ways to improve.
    Continuously show your team that you appreciate their efforts. Then, when an opportunity for learning and improving presents - a “teachable moment" - the team will be more open to constructive feedback. Dr. John Gottman's research promotes a 5:1 ratio of positive versus negative feedback to promote healthy relationships.

Caveat: the only thing worse than excessive criticism is evasive, out-of-context, double talk, which leaves the team confused. Always give legitimate praise and constructive feedback.  We will explore more of this in the next concept.

Serve With Humility.

An old maxim that I first heard used by motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar,  is “ People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Serving those you lead transcends all other actions. Actions to serve your team selflessly, with humility, will gain exponential results long after the current team has disbanded or moved on. Individual team members will take their leader’s example of selfless service with them wherever they go and pass it on to their future teams. Enacting this concept requires authenticity and genuineness.  You cannot get away with “going through the motions” or faking it here.

So how does a leader approach authentic service?

  1. Accept that you are a work in progress.
    Acting with humility or with a lack of conceit is an ongoing process. Once you identify where you may be prone to ego or conceit, you are on the right track to begin changing your behavior to improve.
  2. Use the power of your position to empower your team.
    Since knowledge is power, share the knowledge you have with your team. Open your processes to the extent possible while respecting confidentiality and proprietary information. An amazing by-product of empowerment is that the more you give away, the more you receive.
  3. Stop caring who gets the credit.
    Serving with humility should not connote weakness. On the contrary, humility indicates inner confidence so strong there is no need to take credit for anything. It indicates on the part of the leader “I am strong when you are strong”. Seize on the words of C.S. Lewis - “humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less”.  
  4. Evaluate and offer feedback but avoid needless judgment and endless fault-finding.
    For some of us who suffer from perfectionism and strong opinions, who are prone to fill a vacuum and have a bias for bold actions, this concept requires a large measure of restraint. Give feedback constructively by sticking to facts, without ignoring things that need to be addressed. Giving feedback that will result in continuous improvement requires the receiver to be willing and able to receive it. Great leaders must enable their teams to be feedback seekers!
  5. Exemplify your humanity.
    Show your team, by example, how you seek balance in life and excellence in the workplace. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and human. Look for the best in others.

Caveat: Caring about team members in a leadership setting is about being kind and supportive - while also being honest. It involves coaching, which is teaching others to meet their challenges themselves. In other words, caring about a team member at work sometimes involves tough love.

Humility demands courage. It requires being self-confident and self-assured, the willingness to be judged harshly and second-guessed, and an absence of EGO. However, the rewards of striving in this way can be immeasurable.

Prideful, self-conceited leaders of the world may sometimes receive promotions, publicity, and positions of authority over those who serve with humility.  But when team members and future leaders look back and answer the question “Which former bosses and associates made a profound difference in my life?” it's the humble leaders they will remember.

So, how does one put this all together?

You can work diligently at knowing your job but not articulate your purpose succinctly enough or not execute as planned. You can think you know your team and have built healthy relationships only to be surprised by their lack of engagement. And you can lead with humility and sometimes feel unappreciated or misunderstood. Leadership is a learned set of skills built around a core of character: It requires continuous learning and adjusting. These action steps are the recipe for successful leadership but putting the recipe together requires practice. The ingredients don’t change but the way you mix them will change based on the environment.

Daily commitment to putting these three concepts into practice is required for great leadership. A humble server who is incompetent or who is not interested in building a team is at risk of failing. An extremely competent person who knows their job inside and out but is a one-person show will not take advantage of the multiplier effect of an engaged team. A boss who knows their job and builds an engaged team but is a self-absorbed, ego-driven person may go very far in public acclaim but will not be a “difference maker”. Great leadership can be daunting but is simply knowing your job, knowing your team, and serving with humility.

Three Leadership Concepts for Courageous Leaders

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