The year 1777 was not a particularly good time for America’s newly formed revolutionary army. Under General George Washington’s command, some 11,000 soldiers made their way to Valley Forge. Following the latest defeat in a string of battles that left Philadelphia in the hands of British forces, these tired, demoralized, and poorly equipped early American heroes knew they now faced another devastating winter.
Yet history clearly records that despite the harsh conditions and lack of equipment that left sentries to stand on their hats to prevent frostbite to their feet, the men who emerged from this terrible winter never gave up. Why? Largely because of the inspiring and selfless example of their leader, George Washington. He didn’t ask the members of his army to do anything he wouldn’t do. If they were cold, he was cold. If they were hungry, he went hungry. If they were uncomfortable, he too choose to experience the same discomfort.
The lesson Washington’s profoundly positive example teaches is that leading people well isn’t about driving them, directing them, or coercing them; it is about compelling them to join you in pushing into new territory. It is motivating them to share your enthusiasm for pursuing a shared ideal, objective, cause, or mission. In essence, it is to always conduct yourself in ways that communicates to others that you believe people are always more important than things.
Donald Walters, in his insightful little book, The Art of Leadership, provides a compelling example of how this perspective plays out in the most unlikely of places: the battlefield. Walters points out, “The difference between great generals and mediocre ones may be attributed to the zeal great generals have been able to inspire in their men. Some excellent generals have been master strategists, and have won wars on this strength alone. Greatness, however, by very definition implies a great, an expanded view. It transcends intelligence and merely technical competence. It implies an ability to see the lesser in relation to the greater; the immediate in relation to the long term; the need for victory in relations to the needs that will arise once victory has been achieved.”
As a general myself, I can confirm that achieving my mission, be it in training a new generation of capable men and women for service, promoting peace, or achieving victory in combat, is paramount. Yet this doesn’t imply that I should indiscriminately pursue my goals or blindly pursue my objectives at all costs. What Walters’ wise words strive to remind us of is that leadership, be it as a general in the military, an executive in the boardroom, a pastor serving a congregation, or a parent providing for a family, isn’t about exercising power over people, but rather, it’s about finding effective ways to work with people.
The most effective form of leadership is supportive. It is collaborative. It is never assigning a task, role or function to another that we ourselves would not be willing to perform. For all practical purposes, leading well is as simple as remembering to remain others-centered instead of self-centered. To do this, I try to keep these four imperatives in mind:
Listen to other people’s ideas, no matter how different they may be from your own:There’s ample evidence that the most imaginative and valuable ideas tend not to come from the top of an organization, but from within an organization. Be open to others opinions; what you hear may make the difference between merely being good and ultimately becoming great.
Embrace and promote a spirit of selfless service: People, be it employees, customers, constituents, or colleagues, are quick to figure out which leaders are truly dedicated to helping them succeed and which are only interested in promoting themselves at others’ expense. Be willing to put others’ legitimate needs and desires first and trust that they will freely give you the best they have to give.
Ask great questions: The most effective leaders know they don’t have all the answers. Instead, they constantly welcome and seek out new knowledge and insist on tapping into the curiosity and imaginations of those around them. Take it from Albert Einstein: “I have no special talent,” he claimed. “I am only passionately curious.” Be inquisitive. Help tap others’ hidden genius one wise question and courageous conversation at a time.
Don’t fall prey to your own publicity: Spin and sensationalism is an attractive angle to take in today’s self-promoting society. Yet the more we get accustomed to seeking affirmation or basking in the glow of others’ praise and adulation, the more it dilutes our objectivity, diminishes our focus, and sets us up to believe others are put in our path to serve our needs. Be careful not to become prideful; it will only set you up for a fall.
Those who serve under an effective general know well that he or she would ask nothing of others that they would not first do themselves. Such a leader believes with all their heart that they are one with their people, not superior to them. They know that they are simply doing a job together.
The need to reimagine and recast how we think about leadership has never been greater. In my view, too many of us have allowed our understanding of leadership to grow stagnant, contributing to why we face so many daunting problems in our society today. Now is the time to discover the leader within all of us. Now is the time to accept that leadership is meant to be more verb than noun, more active than passive.
Now is the time to not lose sight of the fact that people, be it in warfare, politics, religion, education, or business, are always more important than things.
Are you game?