Impressions of Leadership

Friday, March 27th, 2009

I read three newspapers each morning. This habit, near fetish or fix, began after serving in the Navy in the 1970s. For news aboard ship, the officers would pass-around a clipboard of news captions received in the radio room. Sometimes we received only half of the transmission.

As a consequence of my time out of the popular culture mainstream and periodically when we’re in front of the television or at a dinner, someone will mention a tv program or even song from that period. While my fellow viewers and dinner partners express related opinions and associations, I react as though I just landed here from afar. Now I’m used to saying, “that must have been in the seventies.”

One of my Navy roommates tried to enjoy investing in the stock market. During port calls in the Pacific, he’d receive a pile of Wall Street Journals. He pore through the stack exclaiming and cursing the performance of his investments as their 2 and 3 week histories were compressed into a 2 tand 3 hour interval for him. Speaking of the Journal: I’ve been a diligent reader and loyal subscriber for nearly 30 years. Under the newly formed News Corp. / Murdoch administration, I’m finding the paper predictable in its point of view and shallow in the depth of its reporting. The editors may be interested to know that my wife, a publications designer, approves of the new trim size. At this rate, I’ll drop the Journal and spend more time with the Times.

Which leads me to the topic of leadership because the unwritten news headlines are furious cries for a TARP-like program of leadership. Aren’t we all just looking for a little bit of it here and there?! What are its elements? Can it be taught? Do we only know it when we see it? Is it valued and encouraged?

I work for a technology company in a college town populated by medical professionals which offers a rewarding mixture of possibility, energy and achievement. My favorite discussions are when we compare the mechanics of our worlds. Yesterday, I spoke with a military officer about the organization of a bbq at an April sporting event. In this discussion, she exhibited the same traits of leadership skill that I attribute to others whom I admire in medicine, technology and in education: foremost, their intent is to get something done; they are unfailing polite while being candid; they work hard in the achievement of mission and are eager to acknowledge the contributions of others; they do not lay blame and do not tolerate incompetence, willful or unintended; they solicit genuine feedback about their performance.

What do leaders do? Leaders create environments where people can belong to something larger than themselves. They inspire confidence that the group will succeed in its purpose even as individual members rotate in and out. Great sports teams are the epitome of this. After all, why do some teams become programs that always play well; some never play well; and most played well so long as so&so was there.

Of course, the essence of leadership is courage. What is that and can that be taught?