Leadership is a buzzword at work, church and among peers these days. Many individuals are genuinely striving to be good leaders, while others blindly equate eloquence for good leadership. Terms like 'servant,' 'abusive,' 'authoritarian' or 'great' are the typical qualifiers of how leadership is perceived. Arguably, the lens with which one looks at leadership is constructed from certain frameworks, definitions and, most importantly, self-conception relative to other people.
For the letter ‘L’ in my leadership alphabet, I invite you on a journey to the imaginary museum of leadership to observe five portraits of leadership: Lead, Loyalty, Learn, Lacuna and Legacy. As you read on, observe, imagine and reflect on how it affirms, alters or challenges your view of leadership.
‘L’ is for Lead
A Thai soccer team in Mae Sai, Thailand ventured on a hiking trip through valleys and caves together with their coach. The coach wanted to strengthen the team spirit, build resilience, improve physical stamina and have fun with his team. This leader was a former Buddhist monk. Nature, however, forced an unexpected change of plans when severe rain and flooding blocked access to a safe passageway and threatened their survival. The team ended up finding refuge in a dark cave.
The leader held them together, led team meditations and kept the hope of the boys alive, as they would later share. He apologized to the parents soon after a massive international effort led to their rescue. He took personal responsibility. He is the leader; the boys are in his team. Even at the hospital and later during vacation, the coach continued to lead – aware of their physical, emotional, mental and social needs.
While it seems obvious, there are so few who understand that the first task of a leader is to lead. Some prefer the title, the honor conferred, or the fame of the platform for showmanship. Team members follow leaders who transcend the passions and whims of self in service to others. You lead by example, and your team knows it — whether as a visionary, paranoid, lazy, competent, incompetent, or faithful, servant leader. Learn to lead for the right cause in the right spirit, and you will witness an energized and empowered following. When I've asked participants at leadership conferences to describe the qualities of leaders who've impacted their lives, 'credible,' 'authentic,' 'genuine' and 'selfless' are often the one-word terms I've heard. Dare to lead!
‘L’ is for Loyalty
In a world plagued by leadership vacuums, loyalty is demanded by dictators and desired by dedicated leaders. The former needs to feed the ego. The latter prefers that loyalty develops organically in their sphere of influence. Solicited loyalty and earned loyalty are not the same. One is rooted in insecurity and emits restlessness and the aroma of intimidation. The other bears good fruit and invigorates. Leaders who are not known for their loyalty do not have loyal followers. Loyal parents, friends, and partners tend to be loyal leaders of loyal followers. They embody civility, stability, and dignity. They tend to prioritize people over projects yet accomplish great results. They engage others in vision casting, and during execution, they offer openness and respect. In other words, loyal leaders tend to be loyal to the people they lead.
I like to say that a parent is in trouble if they have to invoke the obvious to get a hearing – ‘I am your parent. You need to listen to me!’ Similarly, demanding loyalty is a sure sign of diminished human capital and zero currency of credibility. Dictators may accomplish short term goals and crash after that. Loyal leaders serve people until they retire with a lasting legacy. So, how are you known as a leader? Is your ego, insecurity or narcissistic tendencies getting in the way of responsibility, otherness, and readiness to reach out?
‘L’ is for Learn
When Tom Sipling and a team of teenagers from Camp Hill, PA sent me my first laptop in 1997 (a Hitachi) as a grad student in Croatia, I thought I had the greatest tool I ever needed to learn for the rest of my life. I was so grateful. In 1998, I realized that having my first cell phone (a Nokia) connected me to friends on the go with incredible speed and I was able to learn even things that I did not want to know. More than twenty years later I am still trying to catch up with the things I need to learn to live a meaningful and productive life. Yet I encounter leaders resisting the opportunity to learn basic necessities for their lives and livelihood.
A five-word sentence I recommend you memorize is, ‘Learn to learn or die.’ I tell my college students that a significant part of my task is to teach them how to learn in this ever-changing space and workplace. Modes of learning may vary from reading, listening, observing and researching. I learn from teenagers, whom I see as the pacesetters of trends in the next five years. They help me to imagine, prepare and plan for the future. There are massive resources that should mute all excuses, like free podcasts, audiobooks, online lecture resources, etc. Learn also by traveling and engaging people who are different. Learn to love learning. In a nutshell, learn to lead. To keep going, leaders must keep learning.
‘L’ is for Lacuna
The word lacuna connotes ‘a blank space or missing part.’ Leaders who make an impact and leave an indelible mark are those who are able to identify a vacuum and fill it at the right time. Fear is the number one reason leaders follow the status quo—fear of failure, fear of the unknown, and fear of reputational damage. On a personal level, the leader who pauses to reflect with a desire to improve will find the lacuna in his or her life that needs a change for the better. However, when insecurity feeds the craving for affirmation, that leader will resist honest evaluation, even if it would improve their performance.
Yes, fault finders have much to say but not all of what they say is rooted in malice or premised on falsehoods. The space for growth may reside in the balancing of home life and career ambitions. You can always find at least one thing that is missing in your leadership—if you look for it. There are so many opportunities to be seized and treasures to be amassed if you can improve on at least one thing at a time. The lacuna may be so small that you need deliberate and persistent searching to find. Remember, true leaders, are miners of ideas and explorers of substance. Trust the people around you to look, find, and tell you about new opportunities. It may take new hiring with different skills or empowering staff to tell you the truth. Look for the lacuna.
‘L’ is for Legacy
Too many leaders tend to think about their legacy only in the last years before they retire. I have observed those who have tried to control how they are remembered, down to the details of their funeral. If leadership is a lifestyle, as I have argued, then legacy is the traces and footprints left behind — knowingly and unknowingly. Legacy simply reflects the lasting memory of people who knew you, encountered you and whose lives you touched for good or ill.
John McCain was a Republican senator, a wartime hero, and a father. So much can be said about him but for those who did not know him personally, the memories shared by Democrats, Republicans, Independents and international leaders between his death and funeral services spoke to the legacy of principled leadership, loyal friendship, and a devoted father. Some are known for being rude, morally corrupt and power drunk. Others are known for what they did for a company, the wealth they acquired, or the mansions they built. Legacy with people is, however, the most valuable legacy for leaders. After all, leaders lead people.
Often when my daughters wanted things that I could not afford, I would ask them if they preferred that I would take the time I spend with them to work for more money so that I could meet their unlimited wants? The answer was always a resounding ‘NO! We need you to be around, Dad.’ I have learned not to think about legacy but to do what is right. Love people for who they are and you will be remembered for your care, decency, and the pursuit of justice.
The tour in the museum of leadership ends here for now. Does it affirm some of the things you do? Are there new habits to cultivate? None have it all together. Loving people is the hidden theme behind the exhibits. People are what you need to make leadership work. Please, make note of this question for self-reflection: What did I learn and how may I grow from here?