Real Life Leadership: Personal initiative for impact is Leadership

My latest Real Life Leadership column - Personal initiative sets apart leaders - is online.

What brought me to this conclusion?  What do I mean by this?

Over twenty years ago, I took my first leadership seminar.  Seventeen years ago I began a collegiate student leaders program.  Ten years ago I started my leadership consulting practice.  In much of this I have followed the experts.  I've read more books that I can recall. 

I've led workshops, conducted vision processes, developed strategic plans, mediated conflict resolution, helped form new organizations, and led a variety of efforts and organizations.  I've looked for ideas, models, methods, and systems for leading organizations.  I've talked with all kinds of leaders about their experience, their ideas, what works and doesn't. 

The current thinking about leadership can be classified in two ways, and then those can be distinguished in two ways as well.

Most leadership writing is either about working with people or about managing organizational structure and systems. 

Most of the writing about working with people is about how to develop teams, how to communicate, etc.  Most of it is excellent material, but it does not distinguish leaders from followers.  It is purely about how to work with people.  It is worth reading, but in my estimation it is not primarily about leadership, but about the people side of management.  The material is valuable whether you are in a leadership position or not.

Writing about management focuses on the mechanics of organizations.  Again, the ideas are valuable, but not necessarily about leadership.  The ideas are valid whether you are in a leadership position or not.

I make this distinction because what I don't find in virtually all this literature is an emphasis on personal initiative. I do see this in ways in texts about entrepreneurialism and in descriptions of historical and contemporary military leadership.  Why? Because both organizational ventures are obsessessively focused on outcomes or impact. 

Did I have a bias toward this when I began?  I don't think so.  Twenty years ago I had no interest in business or military subjects. I was a associate minister in a large downtown church primarily concerned with serving poor families and homeless people. 

So, over the past two decades what has emerged in my own thinking is more of a classical understanding of leadership with a contemporary twist.  Reading Aristotle and the Stoics, and more recently Plato and Xenophon has clarified for me what I've seen missing in most leadership literature.  The importance of leaders taking the initiative to build trust and commitment in those that follow them.  The twist is that in the past, there was always a hard distinction between leader and follower.  Today, I believe that distinction is blurred. Today, organizations need to fill their employee ranks with leaders who practice take personal responsibility to take initiative to create a positive impact for the organization.

My Real Life Leadership column today gets at some of this in looking at the nature of personal initiative.  But it is not simply personal initiative, but the focus of that initiative.  I divide it four categories of initiative.  I'll be brief here, and write more on this later.

 The first category for personal initiative is the Self.  Taking initiative concerning the Self entails developing a clear understanding of human purpose.  That purpose is tied to the nature of the impact we are to have as people, and is determined by the character of the lives we live.  As a person whose perspective is formed within the context of the Christian tradition, I view that purpose as divinely imparted in who we are as individuals.  That each person is a unique being whose gifts,talents, background and life context provide insight as to the  purpose of our lives that is realized in a specific kind of impact.

The second category for personal initiative is People.
No one lives in total isolation.  Leaders lead people, not organizations as Peter Drucker says.  So we initiate toward people.  It begins with our own honesty about our selves, and respect toward other people. We don't use honesty as a weapon, but as a tool for creating a relationships of openness and mutural respect, trust and participation.   Part of a leader's focus in developing these relationships is to foster the same kind of personal initiative by others in their organization. 

The third category for personal initiative is with Ideas.  There are two levels to this area of initiative.  The first is realizing a clarity and coherence of thought that ultimately is a vision for the impact that is desired.  The second level is the ability to articulate this vision or these ideas so that others will share your perspective.  Involved at this level are the tradition skills of communication.  And I include within that the ability to market ideas for impact.

The final category for personal initiative is organizational structure. I view the structure of organizations as that which enable people in relationship with one another to acheived a desired impact.  In this instance, leaders focus on organizational design to enables a wider spectrum of the organization to practice personal initiative for fulfilling the organizations purpose.  By widening the leadership base of the organization, a greater scope of impact is possible.

Leadership initiative is the will of the individual in action to achieve a specific impact. Without initiative, there is no impact, only a passivity that waits for other to do it.  I'll say more about this in future posting.

Recruiting Leaders or Tasklist checkers

Is there room for more than one leader in an organization?  I should think so.  But the way many organizations are structured today, the focus is not on leadership, but on the task list.  Anyone who has an ounce of initiative, creativity and drive need not apply.

Seth Godin, who is as clear thinking and insightful a guy as there is offers some thoughts - here , here and here - on the difficulty that exists for many very creative people who want to work where they are not just a cog in the machine.

His comments mirror questions that I have had for sometime about what is happening in American businesses.

He makes the point that job growth is taking place in small businesses, not large, and that most large busiensses are shrinking in size of their personnel.

I have wondered about the rush to downsize organizations.  As one who was downsized in the mid-1980s, it has always seemed to me that this is a public confession of failure, not a responsible financial decision. 

Look at it this way.  A huge cost of doing business is in personnel.  A major portion of that cost is the recruitment and training of people.  If Seth is right, and I have no reason to think otherwise, that businesses hire to fill a slot, rather than bring in the best people, then what is really driving many decisions is the failure to identify sufficient tasks for people to do that results in increased revenue for the company.

If small businesses are where the action is, then what large businesses should do is instead of downsizing their valuable personnel, create new businesses where the people who don't fit can use their creativity to create new value for the business.  This a blending of R&D and new enterprise creation. 

As it appears from my vantage point, today, new value is created through mergers and acquisitions, not through the creation of new enterprises.  This may create new opportunities to leverage similar enterprises for greater strength.  Or, it may be nothing more than acquiring an asset to fund a losing one.

Ultimately, what each person who is creative, resourceful and has a high level of personal initiative must do is brand themselves, so that instead of looking for work, then are being sought after for their expertise.  No easy job. But a better job that cog worker.

Your Future Leaders

Where are the next generation of business leaders being developed?  

Daniel Henniger, a Wall Street Journal writer, published on November 19 in WSJ (subscription required) the following story on the quality of the troops fighting in the Battle of Fallujah gives us a hint. 

Wonder Land
Troops In Fallujah Are The Best Since World War II

By Daniel Henninger
The amazing, perhaps historic, battle of Fallujah has come and gone, and the biggest soldier story to come out of it is the alleged Marine shooting. There must have been hundreds of acts of bravery and valor in Fallujah. Where will history record their stories?
Maybe it's just a function of an age in which TV fears that attention spans die faster than caddis flies, and surfing the Web means ingesting information like a participant in a hot dog eating contest. By contrast, Michael Ware of Time magazine has a terrific account this week of one platoon led by Staff Sergeant David Bellavia ("We're not going to die!"), fighting its way through the snipers and booby traps of Fallujah: "A young sergeant went down, shrapnel or a bullet fragment lodging in his cheek. After checking himself, he went back to returning fire." Amid mostly glimpses this week of telegenic bullet flight paths and soldiers backed against walls, I wanted more stories like this. More information about who these guys are and what they were doing and how they were doing it. The commanders in Iraq praise them profusely, and by now maybe that's all these young U.S. soldiers need -- praise from peers.

The draft ended in 1973. What has happened to the all-volunteer military in the three decades since ensures that no draft will return this side of Armageddon.
Post-Vietnam, the military raised the performance bar -- for acquired skill sets, new-recruit intelligence and not least, self-discipline. The thing one noticed most when watching the embedded reporters' interviews last year on the way into Iraq was the self-composed confidence reflected throughout the ranks. And this in young men just out of high school or college.
It was no accident. Consider drugs. In 1980, the percentage of illicit drug use in the whole military was nearly 28%. Two years later, mandatory and random testing -- under threat of dismissal -- sent the number straight down, to nearly 3% in 1998.
Today recruits take the Armed Forces Qualification Test. It measures arithmetic reasoning, mathematics knowledge, word skills and paragraph comprehension. The current benchmark is the performance levels of recruits who served in Operation Desert Storm in 1990. The military requires that recruits meet what it calls
"rigorous moral character standards."
After his August report on Abu Ghraib and U.S. military detention practices, former Defense Secretary Jim Schlesinger told a writer for this page: "The behavior of our troops is so much better than it was in World War II." And more. Unit cohesion, mutual trust in battle, personal integrity and esprit all are at the highest levels in the nation's history, right now, in Iraq. Indeed, the U.S. armed services may be the one truly functional major institution in American life.

Some fear the creation in the U.S. of a military caste, disassociated from the rest of society, or worry about the loss of civic virtue. The bridge across, I suspect, is narrower than many suspect. A 2002 Harvard Institute of Politics survey of college students found that if their number came up in a new draft, 25% would eagerly serve and 28% would serve with reservations. The draft itself is quite irrelevant today. But contrary to the last election's confusing signals about the attitudes of the young, most of them, it seems, are willing to "do something" to protect their country, if asked. It is their elders' job to find a way to ask. The military writer Andrew Bacevich has summed up our current situation nicely: "To the question 'Who will serve?' the nation's answer has now become: 'Those who want to serve.'"
At a ceremony on Nov. 13 at Camp Taji, Iraq -- with Fallujah raging elsewhere -- Army Maj. Gen. Pete Chiarelli presented 19 Purple Hearts for wounds in the battle of Najaf, the big battle before Fallujah. Gen. Chiarelli remarked that George Washington created the Purple Heart in 1782, for what Gen. Washington himself described as "unusual gallantry . . . extraordinary fidelity and essential service."
Essential service. After 20 months of it in Iraq and two hard weeks of it in Fallujah, "service" -- an old idea in a world too busy to take much notice -- is a word worthy of at least some contemplation.

What this tells me is that a cadre of leaders is forming that understand classic leadership virtues lost over the past 30 years.  These leaders understand how to build teams, command sacrifice by their own example, and are decisive in the stress of meeting standards that are increasingly higher and more difficult to achieve.  This is at least a part of what "essential service" means.

If I was in charge of hiring for a company, these would be the people I'd be recruiting.  What do I see in these soldiers/citizen leaders?

They are people who are:

1.  Committed to service

2. Willing to sacrifice for the good of the team, and

3. Courageous, resourceful and loyal to their team no matter the stress and difficulties of the situation.

How many of us can say we are like these men and women? 

How many of us would love to serve under leaders like this?

Is this a picture of our future leaders? 

I certainly hope so.