Leadership is an Art Form!

I was mentored by one of the greatest retail leaders of our time, Sam Walton. I’ve studied the history of leadership and leaders it seems my whole life. I’ve taught Leadership methodology and theory in advanced degree programs at the college level.

For me, Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the US, stands head and shoulders above any I’ve studied, both past and present and Lincoln on Leadership, a book written in 1992, is my favorite reference on any discussion of leadership.

Despite everything that’s been written, translated, interpreted, clarified or defined, there are still no set rules or formulas for leaders to follow. You’ll find many guidelines, concepts, perceptions, ideas, abstractions and generalities from as many sources. It’s why the art of leadership is so difficult to master and to teach.

It’s also why there’s such a shortage of role models for others to follow, especially younger generations.

Lincoln had three unmatched leadership qualities:

  1. Empathy, which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.
  2. Perspective, which is the capacity to view things in their true state of relative importance.
  3. Consistency, which is a level of performance that does not vary greatly in quality over time.

His Leadership principles never varied and I’ve tried to model the following 10 principles my whole career.

  1. Get out of the office and circulate among your people. Its important people know you come among them without fear. Don’t decline to see people that want to see you. Provide a feedback loop and use it often.
  2. Build strong alliances. Wage only one war at a time. Invest time and money in understanding human nature rather than trying to change it. Show compassion and concern at the same time you show fairness and firmness.
  3. Persuade rather than coerce. Persuade subordinates to compromise wherever possible. Avoid issuing orders rather, make suggestions and requests. Use force only as a last resort.
  4. Never act out of vengeance or spite. Never crush a person and in the process make them a lifetime enemy, especially subordinates. Remember that the organization takes on the leader’s personality. Have malice for none and charity for all.
  5. Have the courage to handle unjust criticism. Refrain from reading negative things and bringing about self-provocation. The possibility of failure should never enter your mind. Do the very best you can until the very end.
  6. Be a master of Paradox. Be a master or consistency in the art of rigid flexibility. Be a master in the art of unpredictably predictable. Be a master at providing an environment of safety while encouraging risk-taking. Avoid major conflict in the form of quarrels or arguments; you don’t have time. Make no explanation to your enemies; all they want is to squabble and find fault; they can’t do so if they don’t have any ammunition.
  7. Exercise a strong hand and be decisive. Don’t feel threatened by your followers; human nature applies to them, as well. Bring disputing parties together and let them work out their differences with guidance. Always let subordinates know the glory is theirs in victory, the blame is all yours in defeat.
  8. Keep searching until you find your ‘Grant‘. Choose subordinates who crave responsibility and aren’t afraid to take risks. If a subordinate is not modeling your leadership, don’t be afraid to remove them. If a subordinate isn’t performing, don’t be afraid to remove them.
  9. Encourage innovation. Don’t lose confidence in your people when they fail. Encourage subordinates to act on their own except in matters of policy. Find new information and ammunition with which to equip your people.
  10. Master the art of Public Speaking through Conversation & Storytelling. Study the art of nonverbal communication and body language translation. Learn to speak as you think and not as you read. The best stories are the personal ones that draw parallels to the topic and the audience.

Our current environment is more polarized politically than I’ve seen in my lifetime. It’s difficult to get at the truth of anything. It’s why I choose to view the world through the lens of Leadership & Organizational Efficiency. It helps me make sense of most things as objectively as possible.

This is why I say that, with few exceptions, Leadership is an art form today’s leaders have still to master.

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