What is Leadership?

What is leadership?

Leadership could be most easily described as the effective ability in getting people to do… things.  And therefore, a leader’s measure is their effectiveness in doing so.  Take for example the illustration below: 

As a leader, your primary mission is to move all the people located Box A into Box B.  And how you go about doing that is completely up to you.  But, the difficulty in your job, as leader, is Google Maps will not provide you the roadmap to explain how to do this. And unfortunately at the end of the day, you alone will be responsible for the outcome.  So the next question is, how do you move those individuals in Box A to Box B? More on that later. 

Unfortunately, your subordinates might not always be in a tight grouping as you witnessed above in Box A.  Actually, your box may look like the one below: 

We now arrive at the purpose of this entry: to teach the leader what it takes to be effective at leading.   First, you must find a creative way to shepherd your subordinates together by influencing them to buy into your overarching goal. And then, but perhaps simultaneously, earn their respect so that they trust your requests enough to move together, as one unit, accordingly (from A to B).  It may seem like simple concepts on paper, but this is one of the hardest challenges that every leader faces.  So let’s break it down even further so that you can understand these concepts at a 30,000 ft. perspective. 


The ability to shepherd your subordinates together by influencing them to buy into your overarching goal serves as the first of many challenges for the new leader assigned to lead a group of individuals.  The leader needs to establish an intent, or an overarching goal.  The military refers to this idea as the “commander’s intent.” What is the primary strategic mission that you are trying to accomplish with this group of individuals?  Perhaps, your intent is to build a winning culture.  A culture that not only produces success on the field or gym floor, but it also builds winning students in the classroom.  Or from a different perspective, maybe it’s simply to be faster or stronger. Whatever it is, you must clearly and confidently state your intent with your subordinates, as often as necessary, to ensure that each of them clearly understands.  Ask them on a regular basis if they understand the team’s overarching goal.  If they don’t understand it’s your job to re-explain your intent in a manner that is simple, clear and concise. 


What are your expectations for this team, and its players on an individual level?  You must be sure you are not only setting a high standard of expectations, but those expectations must be communicated early (upon arrival) and as often as necessary.  Each player, coach, and member of the staff, must clearly understand what is expected of them. Sit down with each of them, share with them a list of expectations on “paper” that clearly lists each of their duties.  Have them sign the paper once they acknowledge those responsibilities. This will provide you with the opportunity to measure their performance, observe whether or not they are performing as expected, and hold your subordinates accountable for their performance.  If they are not successfully completing one of their responsibilities, you can have a constructive conversation with them based on something tangible that was agreed upon.  At the end of the day this eliminates the availability of the typical excuse, especially the “I didn’t know.” 


Following up with your leader’s intent, you must have a purpose.  This tells your subordinates why they are aiming towards a winning culture, or to be faster or stronger.  Your purpose in these instances could be to win a state championship.  Or maybe to earn a spot in the playoffs.  The purpose is critical, and it must touch the hearts of each of your subordinates.  It should be something that they desire as well, and it should affect them on a deep level.  Great leaders are storytellers.  And this may be the opportunity to share a story, perhaps your own story, telling them why this purpose means so much to you. Consider connecting your purpose with a conflict everyone shares. How will this new purpose overcome that grief?  With charisma, tell them why this purpose should mean so much to your subordinates.  

Where many leaders fail is that they don’t explain how the purpose aligns with their subordinates higher purpose goals?  That, my fellow leaders, will interest them the most. For example, if your purpose in building a winning culture is so that your team will win a state championship, then tell your subordinates how this aligns with their goals to play at the next level.  “When we establish a winning culture, you will be heavily sought out by college recruiters because they want winners on their team.”  Connect their goals with the team’s goals. But in order to understand what their high purpose goals are, this will require you to invest time in your subordinates, learning about them and what means the most to them. If you haven’t figured it out already, leadership is exhausting. 


Once you have stated your purpose and why your intent is important, only then may you begin to assign missions that align with your intent. Missions that once achieved by the team, will bring the team closer to their desired end state of a winning culture. These purpose methods should make sense because your subordinates should, as of now, clearly understand the intent.  If not, they will start to push back. 

Other leaders fail because they assign missions without taking the time to invest in explaining the information shared above (Leader’s Intent + Purpose). When this happens, subordinates will start to complain about why such supposed, “meaningless tasks,” are being asked to carry out in the first place. They don’t understand, so of course they are going to have questions and begin to doubt both your leadership and the mission. If this is the situation, it is your job as leader to teach it to them, and this time in a manner that they will better understand. 


Finally, you must convey to your subordinates what the end state is going to look like.  What is the finished product of all these missions you are assigning?  And how will you know when you have reached your overarching goal?  Quite simple, when you have metrics to support that your intent was achieved.  Perhaps the parents and teachers have commented on the level of professionalism in the players on this year’s football team.  Or maybe the level of cohesion, communication, dedication, and work ethic of the individuals on the team contains all the intangibles of a winning culture. The end state is a deadline, and the clock is ticking.  So get creative, communicate, make adjustments when necessary, and provide enough supportive resources for your subordinates so that your team can meet this goal by the time marked for final evaluation. This could, in many respects, be the first home game of the season.  


Being a leader gives you the authority to carry out the above, but you are going to have your work cut out for you if you do not possess the intangibles of an effective leader that your subordinates love to follow.  Otherwise, everything about your speech is just going to be perceived as lip service.  Gunnery Sgt. Cody Morris, United States Marine Corps, consistently preaches the importance of the quote, “Your rank gives you the authority, but it’s your character that earns respect.”  I direct your attention back to the illustration shared earlier:

Communicating your leader’s intent, purpose, the methods, and end state, may effectively shepherd your subordinates into Box A.  But, without respect, you will have a difficult time leading these individuals into Box B, or your desired end state. That is why a leader must, at all times: be a professional; lead by example; hold their men accountable; and most importantly, go the extra mile to win the hearts of their subordinates. Doing these things, on a consistent basis, will earn the respect of your subordinates.  With that respect, your subordinates will trust you and carry out your requests.  This means they will follow you to Box B.

First, good leaders are professional. They consistently demonstrate the Marine Corps leadership traits of JJDIDTIEBUCKLE.  This acronym stands for justice, judgement, dependability, decisiveness, integrity, tact, initiative, enthusiasm, bearing, unselfishness, courage, knowledge, loyalty and endurance. These 14 leadership traits are all critical, and leaving one out or being deficient in any individual trait could inhibit your effectiveness.  As a leader, you should be measured on how well you demonstrate each of them.  And if you can master each of these, your subordinates will, without a shadow of a doubt, respect you as a leader. 


Next, you must be able to effectively lead by example.  There is nothing that you will assign or expect that you won’t carry out or embody yourself.  For instance, this means that if you are assigning difficult missions to your subordinates, you had better be alongside them, suffering the hardships that they are suffering.  Or from another perspective, if you demand a high level of fitness from your subordinates but you are unfit, your subordinates are just going to laugh in your face. Embodying everything that you preach will earn your subordinates respect. 


You must be likable as a leader, but you must also hold your subordinates accountable for their shortcomings or deficiencies. There is a strong dichotomy in leadership between being well liked by your subordinates but also being able to have the courage to show your teeth to uphold the standard.  You must have a firm understanding of what you will tolerate. Above all else, there is a standard to uphold. The standard should already be well understood by your subordinates when you deliver your expectations earlier.  Now, you need to “show your teeth” when a subordinate is not meeting the standard or extends beyond the parameters that you have set.  

Have the courage to communicate your displeasure to them, but do so in a manner that is tactful and clearly shows where they failed.  Don’t crucify them in the public square when it’s the first time they have failed to meet expectations. Be a good human and clearly articulate their shortcomings.  They will respect you for being firm but fair. Perhaps, it’s not about being their mother or father; but instead a big brother, who is explaining what needs to be fixed.  At the end of the day, they should love you. And how you can achieve that love is sacrificing your own time to help fix them. Consider giving them a sticky “punishment” that you do with them.  You could say something like, “So you didn’t have time this morning to run your 3 miles.  No problem, meet me at 5pm at the track fields and you and I will run 3 miles together.”  Invest the time in them, at great sacrifice to your own personal time.  Come up with a sticky punishment that is designed to prevent them from wanting to fail again. They will see that their failure complicated your time, and you are holding them to achieving the standard no matter what. They may not like you during the punishment, but they will love you for engaging with them and doing it together. 


Finally, you need to go the extra mile to win their hearts.  In the previous paragraph, I mentioned participating in the punishment with them.  That’s going the extra mile.  It means sacrificing your time in building a relationship with those you are leading.   Respect is earned when you demonstrate that you care about your subordinates and you are not just going through the typical maneuvers of a leader assigning orders and collecting a higher paycheck.  Instead, have a one on one conversation with your subordinates. But don’t just give them lip service; actually care about them. They will smell fabricated feelings from a mile away.  Make time, each day, to drop a note or drop in for an impromptu conversation.  Find out what their higher purpose goals are, how their mom is doing, or who they respect the most in their world. What may take only 10 minutes out of your day, could influence your subordinates for the rest of their lives.  You have no idea how impactful your words may mean to them. And if you don’t take advantage of every opportunity to show your subordinates your heart, you are missing out on a great opportunity. 

If you are able to successfully do the aforementioned, while maintaining a certain swagger and sense of humor, you will lead. It will require professionalism and superior thinking.  But, it will also require knowing who it is you are talking to, especially when requesting a subordinate to carry out a task.  It is the combination of these intangibles and your leader’s intent that will make building a winning culture much easier.