What Makes a Leader?
There are so many resources on leadership available, yet as a culture we still produce so many questionable leaders. From our day to day work lives to high level politicians, business people, media personalities and sporting stars there are countless examples of things going awry.
Because the secret lies in the doing not just the knowing. It is easy to stand up and tout the latest leadership buzzwords but it is another thing entirely to live them. To model what you speak and embody them in your everyday conduct.
Having spent almost 20 years of my military career in small teams from both the Special Forces and infantry combat units, I have been privileged to learn the non-negotiable skills of leadership from the best.
Combat, and I mean combat, as in the place where you can get killed by an enemy, is one of those complex, difficult environments where bad leaders won’t last. Their teams won’t unite, their orders won’t be followed and they won’t get results.
It’s challenging in the modern military to make young men risk their life fighting, to believe so strongly in a cause that they will suffer for it; so good leaders learn they must lead from the front.
So what is it that a frontline leader does differently?
1. Be Authentic
It’s number one for a reason. Before you start to lead and look after others you must know who you are, what you stand for and what you believe in. When you are really ready to lead, it will be because you know yourself intimately, your own personal strengths and weaknesses. There is no place for ego. You possess a genuine humility with the ability to take full ownership of decisions and results.
2. Build Trust
You exist to serve the team. When you realise that leadership is the privilege you have been given, you will make protecting the team and building its strength important to you. Know your team’s personalities and have their best interest at heart. Do these things and the team will see you as their leader without you telling them you are. Trust will occur naturally, and your influence will grow.
3. Gain Experience
Be competent at the roles, tasks and jobs of the members of your team. Strive to learn every aspect of your team’s area of expertise. Be professional and remember that complacency kills. Do the small things well.
4. Create a Shared Culture
Everything is shared. The values, purpose, objectives and outcomes. Members of a high performing team see themselves as a lot more than just a team. They will see their team as a family, cohort or tribe. When your team feel like they belong to a family, they will sacrifice for each other. The collective goal of the team becomes more important than the individual and as a result the team will prosper.
5. Display Personal Courage
This one is simple but far from natural or easy. Set the example and lead from the front. Once you have your plan implement it and “run into the breach” as they say. Your team will follow. Do what I do, not what I say. Be brave and take ownership of the team’s mistakes while giving them the credit for their successes.
6. Be Comfortable in Chaos
It is imperative for a leader to remain calm, especially when things don’t go to plan. Your team will look to you in adversity and it will be up to you to steer them out of trouble. Be flexible and work on your adaptability. It is the ability to prioritise and execute that will see your team succeed. Remaining calm will allow you to see the opportunities in unseemingly challenging situations and use them to your advantage.
7. Keep it Simple
Complexity is inherent in any situation, but overcomplicated plans lead to ambiguity which leads to things going wrong. Simplicity is crucial to success. Break everything down to the lowest common denominator and ensure every member of your team understands and is fully on board with the common why.
8. Continuous Improvement
Don’t rest on your laurels. Just because it worked or was the best way in the past doesn’t mean it will work or be the best way now or in the future. Never stop learning. Be open to new ideas. Evaluate every success, and more importantly, every failure, and use these to create better plans moving forward.
A frontline combat leader operates in a harsh and unforgiving environment, an environment where it would be easy to simply preach authority. But true leadership does not demand, it inspires. Create a shared purpose and build the right culture around it and your team will follow.