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One of my favorite lines from this year’s many Georgetown commencement ceremonies was given as part of the ROTC commissioning service, early one morning. It was delivered to the set of newly commissioned second lieutenants by a retired noncommissioned officer, a veteran of many battles, now devoting his life to a nonprofit helping other veterans. My memory of the moment was his looking directly at the new lieutenants and saying something like, “All of you will hold positions of leadership” and then after a dramatic pause, “but not all of you will be leaders.” An attention-getting sentence, in that moment.

He then elaborated on what leadership means in the military – complete devotion to those under your command, doing yourself everything you call on them to do, sometimes before you directly ask them to do it, sacrificing one’s own life for the lives of the team under your command. He said that some of them will leave the military because they will find themselves reporting to a bad leader. He urge them to consider the “serving” part of leadership rather than the “prestige” part of leadership.

While the message was most dramatically provided at that event, the theme seemed to be repeated in various ways throughout other ceremonies. Several speakers reflected on life lessons they’ve experienced. But the leadership message was implicit in many speeches.

Some speakers noted that they learned that no matter how many people reported to them, that if they didn’t understand the work that each was doing, they could not achieve legitimacy in their leadership position.

Some noted that successful startups require diverse teams containing complementary skills. Such teams share many hours together, late nights, and trials and tribulations as initial plans fail and adaptations must be created quickly. Respect for alternative perspectives becomes the glue that empowers the team to use its collective talent. Upon reflection, in one speaker’s view, the shared passion for finding a solution breeds a shared love among team members. Leadership that nurtures that love over the many hours yields success.

Others noted the need to take risks to advance a career. The risk-taking decisions require courage to imagine oneself in a position with more leadership responsibilities. So sometimes, in their view, leadership requires assertion that one is ready for leadership. Several speakers noted how they rely on others to help them make these risk-taking decisions. Sometimes the others are former bosses; other times they were peers in former organizations who knew them well. The lesson to the graduates was to be kind to others, both to be a good colleague but also to maintain the ability to seek their guidance in the future. Leaders always need advice.

Some noted that the most important question one should be asking is what relationships one is building through their life. Are they people of all stations in life? Are they people of good will? Are they people of integrity? Do they offer you diverse input from varied life experiences? Do they care for you? Do they have your best interests at heart; do you, theirs? Leaders are greatly assisted by those who themselves are honorable.

One described an encounter early in their career, during which they were kind to a person of lower status who was seeking assistance. Little did they know that the person they helped would pass the information about their kindness to those at the top of the institution. That little act of kindness led to their being recruited for higher and higher levels of leadership. The moral — kindness and empathy are not just good in themselves but are demonstrative of important leadership prerequisites.

Finally, there were several notes of the role of persistence, singular focus, and determination for successful leaders. The need to repeat over and over a vision to all the stakeholders, to take a stand and keep it. This appeared most salient when the goal of the leader seems distant to those who are enmeshed in the current processes and practices. Leadership, they said, requires the ability to communicate future changes especially when they seem remote to the current lives of the subordinates. The communication must be repeated over and over again.

So, there was much to hear over the commencement days about what makes for good leadership. But, while many spoke about characteristics of good leaders, only one delivered the shocking, attention-riveting phrase, “… not all of you will be leaders.” All of us can profit from that as a prompt to reflection about our own behaviors.

3 thoughts on “Leadership

  1. The leadership definition taught as part of BSA’s MOL (Management of Learning pedagogy developed by IBM for U.S. Army and borrowed by BSA) is as follows: A leader gets the job done and keeps the group together!

  2. Not easy to produce these blogs week after week.
    This was one of your very best. Thank you.

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