RISMEDIA, June 24, 2009-Times of great challenge oftentimes bring out the true leaders of a lifetime. Do you have what it takes to not only navigate through today’s challenges, but come out the other side stronger, more confident, and able to take on new challenges? Charles P. Garcia, former White House Fellow and author of Leadership Lessons of the White House Fellows: Learn How to Inspire Others, Achieve Greatness, and Find Success in Any Organization offers the following 20 leadership lessons to help inspire professionals of any trade:
1. There’s more to life than work. Great leaders have deep reserves of physical, spiritual, and emotional energy, and that energy is usually fueled by a strong and supportive relationship with the people they love, regular exercise, a healthy lifestyle, and setting aside time for reflection.
2. Always focus on the mission. To be a great leader, you have to be intensely focused on the core mission of your organization: know it, understand it, and live it. Make sure everyone in your organization can answer these questions: Who are we? What do we do? Whom do we serve? At the end of the day, the mission is the true North Star that guides every action you take.
3. Put your people first. No organization is better than the people who run it. The fact is that you are in the people business-the business of hiring, training, and managing people to deliver the product or service you provide. If the people are the engine of your success, to be a great leader you need to attend to your people with a laserlike focus.
4. Root out prejudice. Great leaders recognize that talent and leadership abilities are distributed randomly. Therefore, they do not form judgments about a person based on ethnicity, gender, religion, age, or any other factor. They root out prejudice and biases in themselves and others and ensure that there is an equal opportunity at all levels for everyone to rise to a position of leadership in his or her organization on the basis of merit and character.
5. Act with integrity. The actions of great leaders are consistent with their words. Saying the right thing doesn’t mean much. Doing the right thing means everything when you want people to follow you passionately. By acting with honor and integrity, you build trust with your followers.
6. Create a sense of urgency. Effective leaders create a sense of urgency by communicating with their team to set a goal and a workable time line for achieving it. They hold team members accountable by checking their progress at regular intervals. They encourage their team by being responsive to their questions and concerns and by providing positive feedback. They are flexible and always willing to change course if something is impeding success. Great leaders create a sense of urgency by conveying a bold vision that captures people’s imagination about what can be accomplished in the future. They go one step further by getting all members of their team to see and feel the need for change.
7. Be passionate. When you gamble on your passion, the payoff can be greater than you ever imagined. It’s been said that if you do what you love, personal success will follow. But it could also be said that if you do what you love, the team will follow. Ask yourself, Is “good” sufficient for me, or do I aspire to greatness as a leader? If you’d prefer greatness, remember this: If you want people to follow you, you must follow your passion, because if you don’t care about what you’re doing, you can be sure that no one else will care either.
8. Be persistent. Great leaders learn to cultivate a habit of persisting. Calvin Coolidge said, “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing in the world is more common than unsuccessful men with great talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
9. Be a great communicator. Leadership is about influencing others, and this cannot be achieved without the ability to communicate. Once you master the ability to influence individuals intuitively by first connecting with them, and then choosing words that are impactful to carry your message, you need then to figure out how to communicate to a larger audience. Always keep in mind that your actions truly speak louder than your words.
10. Ask the tough questions that need to be asked. Whatever your station in life, there will come a day when you’ll have to decide whether to speak out or forever hold your peace. When that day comes for you, remember that great results begin with great questions.
11. Take risks. If need be, lay it all on the line to meet a challenge. Dale Carnegie once said, “Take a chance! All life is a chance. The man who goes the furthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare. The ‘sure thing’ boat never gets far from shore.” Leaders constantly challenge their team to take risks, and that encourages creativity and leads to organizational breakthroughs.
12. Understand that not every battle is the end of the war. Too often leaders allow themselves to be sidetracked by other people’s prejudices and personal attacks. They focus too much of their attention on counterattacking those individuals and waste precious energy and time on irrelevant issues. Leaders who demonstrate grace under fire with a laserlike focus on their true mission are the ones who will achieve greatness one day.
13. Energize your people. A great leader needs stamina and vitality to be physically energized, emotionally connected, and mentally sharp. Are you a leader like Nelson Rockefeller? He supercharged those around him with energy so great that they came away as buoyant as if they’d been filled with helium. Instead of being the type of leader who sucks the energy away from others, resolve to be the kind of leader who strives to bring passion and positive energy to the workplace every day.
14. Be a great listener. The most effective leaders are the ones who take the time to listen not just to their team members’ words but to the priceless hidden meaning beneath them.
15. Be persuasive. To move people toward a position they don’t currently hold, you must not only make a rational argument but also frame your ideas, approaches, and solutions in ways that appeal to diverse groups of people with basic human emotions. You must go out and meet the people you are trying to persuade and invite their opinions about the merits of your position and let them offer constructive feedback so that your final proposal reflects their concerns. The ability to persuade takes hard work and discipline.
16. Know when to compromise and when to stand firm. Although it’s not possible to resolve every conflict through negotiation and concession, it is feasible in most cases. The tougher decision is when not to compromise, which often puts your livelihood, your reputation, and the organization you lead at risk. Keep this in mind the next time you have to choose between seeking compromise and holding firm on a critical issue: If you can resolve the matter through give-and-take without sacrificing your core beliefs and integrity, find the middle ground. You’ll soon learn that compromise is the art of making everyone a winner.
17. Be a problem solver. Several years ago Garcia returned from a business trip to find that his assistant had hung a gigantic fifteen-foot-long wooden sign above his office door. The sign reads, “Don’t Bring Me Problems. Bring Me Solutions.” “I suggest that you post a similar sign and then set about the task of guiding each person on your team toward the goal of becoming a top-notch problem solver,” says Garcia. “Sure, it takes time and effort to teach problem-solving strategies to your people, but when you experience the payoff, you’ll know it was an investment worth making.”
18. Lead by walking around. Leaders who sequester themselves in the C-suite quickly become disconnected from their people. If you want to know how best to lead your organization, head down to the lunchroom, the shop floor, or the purchasing office and ask the “stupid questions.” Chances are good that your people will be delighted to help you answer them.
19. Be a transformational change agent. A successful change agent must start by developing a clear understanding of the organization’s past and present and then lead his or her team toward developing its own vision for the future. The most successful change agent helps his or her team overcome the urge to retreat into the comfort zone and encourages its members to put one foot in front of the other in a steady and optimistic march toward a brighter future.
20. Lead through experience and competence, not through title or position. For more than four decades, by pairing young people with established leaders, the White House Fellows Program has given hundreds of young Americans the tools, experiences, and mentors necessary for them to become confident, well-prepared problem solvers and leaders.
Charles P. Garcia is a former White House Fellow and author of Leadership Lessons of the White House Fellows: Learn How to Inspire Others, Achieve Greatness, and Find Success in Any Organization (McGraw-Hill, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-07-159848-4, $24.95).