Building Your Path to Leadership
The topic of leadership fills volumes upon volumes of books and articles, including many different philosophies and approaches on leadership. Obviously, there is no one “right way” to lead groups of employees and organizations. Each leader must find their own approach that best fits their own style, personality and the situations they may face. As culture changes and various circumstances emerge, leadership approaches that were acknowledged as a gold standard before major cultural shifts occurred (such as the impacts of war, the 9/11 attack, COVID, etc.) may no longer be effective. As a result, adjustments will be required.
Leadership can be exhibited in either formal or informal situations. And For those desiring to become formal leaders, a key question is how will you develop a career path that will lead to positions of leadership and ‘future-proof’ your leadership skills for the inevitable changes that will occur?
One great way to begin may be with periods of self-reflection and with questions such as: what makes someone a great leader? What is it that causes someone to willingly follow another person”? Is it their personality? Their looks? Their technical expertise? Their ability to communicate and/or “rally the troops”? Or is it a mix of these or maybe even a myriad of other possibilities?
So, how does one become a true and effective leader? Is the person born that way or do they learn it? Obviously, there are more questions than answers.
Leadership has been defined as: “The art of motivating a group to act towards achieving a common goal” (dictionary). Former president Eisenhower once said that leadership was “The art of getting someone else to do something that you want done because he wants to do it.”
Notice the use of the word “art” in both definitions. Leadership is much more than just a listing of qualities from a textbook or some academic definition. An effective leader has something internal. Something intangible. Power, position, or authority does not make someone a leader. Some advocate that leadership comes automatically with being in a top-level position, but that is a flawed assumption. Some leaders are great under one set of conditions, and less-than-great under others. A position may provide organizational authority and even power and these factors can be used to force an employee to do something. But effective leadership causes someone to want to do that thing. Some such leaders are great no matter if they are the CEO of a large corporation or a staff member leading first graders on a school trip.
Finding Inspirational Leadership
The intangible aspects of leadership (or the “art”) is at least equal in importance to the leadership techniques and processes (the science). Leadership has to flow from deep inside the leader, with passion, care for others, and a good measure of understanding and empathy. This is rarely something that comes about without training, experience, and a good deal of introspection.
When I look back across my career, I saw some good examples of leadership (and of course examples from some individuals that were not so effective). Here are some of the characteristics of the leaders that I respected most.
- First, the effective leader(s) exhibited a “quiet” confidence and ability to influence. They were secure in their abilities. They had a strong self-image. They knew that they didn’t need to be loud or flashy. They knew how to earn my trust and did so by (first) trusting me. They had power and I am certain that they knew it, but never flashed it around. They didn’t have to.
- Next, they set a vision and appropriate strategies to be used to fulfill the vision. They always gave me plenty of space to operate. They relied on my ability to fulfill their mission and vision. They stayed in their leader lane with no intent to overpower me or edge into my lane.
- They had the “it” factor. The effective leader has a sort of charisma and personal style that is attractive: It could be a powerful way of speaking, a social ease that makes everyone feel welcome, or an innate grasp of technical knowledge that allows them to readily solve difficult problems. It was a quality that led me to want to satisfy the leader. They made it easy to follow them, and it always felt like my idea to do so.
- And finally, they set high standards of performance, expected results, and then “got out of the way.” Everyone realized that they knew that the only way they could succeed was through the efforts of others.
Managing your Career
Managing your career is your personal responsibility. Do not delegate that responsibility to anyone. It is a great idea to seek out a “trusted agent” or mentor that can assist and advise as your career progresses, but you must remain in charge of the plan. Become a leader in your area of influence as you strive to become a leader for others. Personal coaching, professional skills workshops, and – yes—leadership programs like the ones Management Concepts offers can help you uncover and address your strengths and weaknesses.
- Develop a plan that can serve as a blueprint for achieving your professional goals. Commit the plan to writing and review it periodically with your mentor. Your blueprint will help if/when the going gets tough or you hit a period where your career progress seems to “stall out.”
- Make appropriate adjustments to the plan as circumstances and other factors in your life change (e.g., you get a new job; find gaps in your skills and competencies, etc.). Look for opportunities to practice and improve your leadership skills. Remember that the skills you develop may need to be tailored to your organization and its objectives – one size does not fit all. Leadership occurs at all levels. Are you happiest managing a small team or a large agency?
- Once you establish a leadership goal, determine the steps that will be required to accomplish the goal and insert them into the written plan. Each step we take in our careers carries with it a cost. Make sure that you realize that cost (both financial and non-financial) to ensure that you are willing to pay the price as your career journey evolves.
At the starting point of our careers, we each begin with something much like an empty canvas. The brushstrokes applied to the canvas are the choices, decisions, and experiences that we make as our career journey evolves. It will only be at the end of your career that your canvas will be completed. Will yours be a beautiful rendering of a successful career? Will it reflect that you were an effective leader?
The wise artist making the brushstrokes realizes that not all of them are right for the overall picture (e.g., the mistakes that we may make during a long career). Just remember that the journey is made up of individual steps, some of which are right and others which may not turn out so well. But our mis-strokes can be overcome, should be learned from, and can be used to help us see the strokes that are correct. There will be time for you to correct the flawed brushstrokes. Your choices and experiences can help you become an effective leader, no matter where you are at today in your career.
I wish each of you well as you navigate your careers. Go and be great artists on your career canvas and a great leader wherever you sit.
Steven Butler, SES(R)
Mr. Butler was the Chief Financial Officer for the Food Nutrition Service in Washington, DC where he oversaw the financial management of $100 billion required for the nation’s food stamps, WIC, and school lunch programs. Prior to that, he served in a wide variety of other key financial management positions such as the CFO for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Washington, DC where he was responsible for managing the financial resources of the multi-billion-dollar Agency. He has also been the CFO for the facilities of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC and Director, Resource Management for the U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command where he oversaw the resources necessary to operate the nation’s in-processing stations for all enlisted military personnel.
Steve was inducted into the Senior Executive Service in September 2006 as the Director for Financial Reporting and Analysis for the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller). In this position, he was responsible for development and analysis of the DOD’s financial statements reflecting $1.7 trillion in assets, along with oversight of other significant financial reporting requirements, budget, and financial metrics.
Following his retirement from the federal government, he was a professor in Finance and Accounting for Olivet Nazarene University and has taught financial management courses for Management Concepts for 12 years.