Leadership is a walk in the dark. Leaders are expected to chart a course into the future and get people there. History can provide partial lessons, but an indispensable quality is to be able to figure out what the right decision is for the time. You can plan, budget, and follow procedure and protocol, but where the leader earns his or her paycheck is in new territory. Ultimately, that takes imagination.
How can leaders develop that imagination of leadership?
The clash between structure and innovation is endemic to all leadership. Even the most charismatic leaders’ face the same dilemma—over time, things become routine and habitual. That’s good in a lot of ways. Bureaucracy is the most efficient way we’ve devised to organize large groups. But like every solution, there are down sides. Leaders need to be aware of that. You’ve always got to be asking why and wondering if there is a different way of doing something.
What characteristics stand out among the best and most successful leaders?
Leaders can have an impact if they can communicate with people. If you have brilliant ideas but you can’t share them or you can’t make people believe them, then you’re not going to be a leader. Two things matter a lot: simplicity and focus. One of my students said, “Leaders think in shades of gray, but they have to speak and write in black and white,” and they can do this best by employing active, simple speech.
The other important aspect is focus. Leaders can talk about themselves, but they need to have the intuitive understanding to speak about others. As Bear Bryant, the legendary Alabama football coach, said, “If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes really good, you did it. That’s all it takes to get people to win football games for you.”
In the context of great American political and military leadership, Dwight Eisenhower after ordering the D-Day invasion to proceed had to wait 24 hours for it to begin. During that time he wrote out a message that would be released to the press if the invasion was a failure. In his first draft he wrote, “The troops have been withdrawn,” but then he crossed that out and wrote, “I have withdrawn the troops.” Eisenhower, a great communicator, knew that he ought to speak in a way that took responsibility for the failure.
What are the top qualities of a great federal leader?
First, you have to understand your part in the bureaucracy. No action occurs in isolation. Leaders also need to be critical thinkers. They should have a practice of asking “why” five times. This is one of the fundamental management practices at Toyota—a persistent habit of critical thinking. Each time you ask, you dig a little deeper.