In April, I had the opportunity to hear Collin Powell speak.
Powell served as National Security Advisor, as Commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command and as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during the Persian Gulf War. He was the 65th United States Secretary of State, serving under U.S. President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005.With his vast experience of being in charge, I wanted to hear what he had to say about leadership. And he had a lot to say. Without ever looking at a notecard or a teleprompter, he spoke for an hour and he spoke from his heart. He said that the essence of leadership ultimately comes down to a matter of trust. He said good leaders are people who are trusted by their followers. He told a story that took place back in the Infantry School at Fort Benning. He said that one of his sergeants approached him and said, “Lieutenant, you’ll know you’re a good leader when people will follow you…if only out of curiosity.” What Powell was saying, and he saw it over and over again, was that people will follow you when they trust you. Well—how do you do that? How do you get people to trust you? Powell went on to say that in infantry school he was told, “Lieutenant, no matter how cold it is—you must never look cold. No matter how hungry you are—you must never appear hungry. No matter how terrified you are, lieutenant, you must never look terrified. Because if you are scared, tired, hungry, and cold….they will be scared, tired, hungry and cold. Make sure your soldiers come to you with their problems. “The day the soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”
When you lead, you must articulate a clear mission. Serve selflessly—not by self-serving selflessly. Prepare your followers– give them what they need to get the job done. Be prepared to take the risks with them. People will follow you into the darkest night, down the deepest valley and up the highest hill if they trust you. So the essence of leadership is about human relationships. People want to know, “Will you have my back?”
Charles Lauer said, “Leaders don’t force people to follow, they invite them on a journey.
Why am I so concerned about leadership? Just take a look around you. We have some complicated problems facing us: sustainable food sources, climate changes, health care, pollution—-the world needs smart leaders who can orchestrate solutions. We need smart leaders who can solve complicated problems. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier. A leader is a dealer in hope.
Leadership is lonely. No matter how big your team, sometimes it’s just you–which means you sometimes you need to look inside yourself for motivation and inspiration.
One of my favorite stories is the story of Harry Potter. Harry was an unlikely leader. But he always rose to the occasion when he was called on. In the Deathly Hallows Dumbledore says to Harry, “It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.” I hope the leaders of our schools wear it well.