Guest Post by Joe Gordon, NASA Kennedy Space Center, Chief – Operations, Support Division, Colonel USMC (Retired)
We are forever assessing and obsessing what it takes to be an effective leader and to ensure a successful organization. There is a plethora of material enshrined in professional journals, books, PowerPoint® slide presentations, and motivational speeches. Much of this suggests attributes that if possessed by the individual will guarantee effectiveness and success. However, frequently only idealistic attributes seem to be considered, such as integrity, tolerance and discretion. Although these are obviously important, they seem to pertain more to the person already at the top of the organization and not necessarily to the ambitious individual who is struggling to get there. A somewhat different set of attributes may be needed to win that struggle. From time to time, integrity, tolerance and discretion may have to be replaced by being a liar, a con man and a bastard. After all, a person has to be a realist at the bottom before he or she can ever hope to be an idealist at the top.
The force of this perverse logic may not sit well with most of us unless you happen to be Dogbert® the CEO, or a modern day Attila the Hun or Machiavelli. However, at times a person may feel that he or she has to resort to such tactics in order to survive, succeed and get to the top, but why? What circumstances cause such behavior? Unfortunately, many circumstances are dealt with in this manner. I believe the “why” is because the individual has failed to develop an appreciation for the leader’s role in ensuring the success of the organization.
The role of a leader is not merely a combination of position, title, rank and style. Position and title can only provide vehicles through which to lead, and rank and style can only hope to complement and facilitate leadership. Also, I do not believe years of technical training and knowledge, alone or in combination with the preceding, are sufficient to make a capable and effective leader.
So, what is the leader’s role in ensuring the success of the organization? Simply put, the leader’s role is, well, to lead, to act. The leader must consistently act in accordance with established values. In my opinion, the best single word definition of leadership is action, what the leader does and says to get the job done. Through the example of his or her words and deeds, he or she motivates others to act toward the common purpose of achieving the organization’s goals. Although this all sounds good, are words and deeds enough to be an effective leader and ensure a successful organization? Of course not, the leader must also understand the essential elements of a successful organization. But, since a perfect organization probably will never exist, I believe that integrity, tolerance and discretion are the first attributes required of the leader who would grasp the nuances and master the elements of his or her organization.
So what are those essential elements? Allowing that plethora of material to frustrate my attempts to keep it simple, I struggled with this question. Then I remembered an article I read in the now defunct “Corporate Journal” circa 1943, written by J.L. Atwood, then the Executive Vice President of North American Aviation. No, I am not that old, but the article was. Nonetheless, the wisdom of his message is timeless and simple, and that was long before people became enamored with management by metaphor and began to worry about their cheese being stolen or their iceberg melting. I do not mean to offend anyone, because I like Mickey Mouse and I enjoyed the “March of the Penguins.” But, I prefer a leadership role model of the human kind rather than a rodent who steals people’s food or a bird that walks in lockstep instead of flying. But, I digress.
Borrowing from Mr. Atwood’s wisdom and my own experiences of almost four decades in leadership positions, and making a lot of mistakes along the way, I submit that the essential elements of a successful organization are simplicity; decisiveness; definition of function, responsibility and accountability; and utilization of ability and talent. Although these are commonsensical, I have learned through experience that commonsense is not always a common denominator, especially concerning leadership.
Simplicity – A successful organization is as simple as its required functions, its core functions, will permit. Remember KISS, Keep It Simple Stupid? Well do we? Even with all of our technology and so called efficiency measures, a lot of what we call management today consists of making it more and more difficult for our already overburdened workforce to do their real jobs effectively. And, if they are not effective, neither are we as leaders or the organizations we lead.
Decisiveness – A successful organization is able to make decisions quickly, firmly and clearly. If you have simplicity, this element is a lot easier, but not a given. We have to understand that decisions involve risks and we have to be able to determine acceptable levels of risks for given or anticipated situations. We also have to appreciate that more times than not we will be dealing with incomplete information, conflicting opinions, limited resources, and short time fuses to act. Contrary to what some folks opine, indecision is not the key to flexibility, but it can lead to paralysis by analysis and ultimately failure.
Definition of function, responsibility and accountability – A successful organization has clearly defined lines of function, responsibility and accountability. Individuals should have no doubts as to what functions they are responsible to perform and that they will be held accountable for their performance. Also, people can often motivate themselves if they understand where and how they fit in the scheme of things and to what purpose. An organization functions best when every member, top to bottom, understands the strategy in which he or she is to play a part; and further understands fully how and when that part is to be played, and what it is planned to accomplish.
Utilization of ability and talent – A successful organization makes maximum use of the abilities and talents of each individual, not just a chosen few, or the few who chose to apply the effort necessary to do the job. While not everyone has the same impact on the success of the organization, everyone does contribute to that success. If anyone does not, either they are not doing their job or their job is not necessary to the success of the organization. Either case will have a negative impact on the organization because resources are being wasted. This element also means helping individuals develop their abilities and talents by creating an honest, open environment in which they can learn and grow. While such growth demands understanding and praise of people’s successes, it also requires frank, honest appraisal of their mistakes and shortcomings. It is too easy to sympathize and emphasize and damn hard to honestly appraise. We must be careful not to substitute the trappings of human relations and emotions for an appreciation for human needs and those of the organization.
Keeping in mind this brief explanation of the role of the leader and the essential elements of a successful organization, I offer the following atypical if not paradoxical advice that I believe can help you be an effective leader and contribute to your organization’s success.
Being an effective leader sometimes means making people angry, even really angry, in the pursuit of organizational success and excellence, but you must also love those you lead. I believe this advice has been best expressed by two role models of the human kind who clearly have demonstrated that effective leadership and organizational success demand consistent exercise of integrity, tolerance and discretion, as well as personal responsibility and accountability in performance.
In his book, “The Powell Principles,” former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, states, “Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.” Leadership cannot be a popularity contest. Leaders who are afraid to get people angry are likely to waver and procrastinate when it comes to making tough choices. To be able to make those tough choices, those difficult decisions, we need to know when to clarify, exhort and push. Random hostilities are not what an organization needs, but if nobody is pissed off, maybe we as leaders are not pushing hard enough. Okay, if it makes some folks feel more comfortable, let’s refer to it as encouraging creative disruption. Nevertheless, a leader’s failure to confront people and challenge their attitudes, opinions, assumptions and decisions hurts the leader’s credibility and the organization’s performance.
Finally, you must love those you lead. At his retirement, Army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki stated, “You must love those you lead before you can be an effective leader. You can certainly command (manage) without that sense of commitment, but you cannot lead without it. And without leadership, command (management) is a hollow experience, a vacuum often filled with mistrust and arrogance.”