Most of what I learned about leadership I learned from my father, Stephen R. Osborn, my mentors George “Shorty” Roth, Bob Allen, George McQuilken and John Millerman, my friend Dave Bones, the two most influential teachers I had in high school: Charlene Paneitz (English) and Peter Mehlbach (German and world history) and, of course, the hard lessons from my own lack or expression of the quality.
No one is perfect in anything he or she does, we all fail, otherwise we don’t improve; so, of course, good leaders fail even in their best qualities and learn from those failures. No individual even gets a chance to exemplify each and every one of these qualities, whether limited by role, situation, interpersonal relationships, etc.
To that end, there are people with whom I have had an opportunity to work with closely and that I hope to work with once again so that I can better see how they exercise these qualities, with whom I would work at any time.
Here are some simple rules I’ve learned from the pile of mistakes that is my life. Few of the rules are absolutes, but pay attention to those that are:
- Leaders listen. They pay attention and don’t focus on what they are going to say next. They know when to keep their ears open and their mouths shut.
- Leaders hear. They make sure they understand what is being said to them– that the message gets through to them, regardless of any pre-conceived notion or possibly falsely held belief. Listening is step one, understanding is the endgame.
- Leaders manage up as well as down. They know what behaviors are appropriate above and below them and make sure that neither set infects the other. They never let the words of their superiors harm those they lead should those superiors forget the harm their words might do. However, this means that a leader must take responsibility for their immediate subordinates’ fuck ups– their fuck ups are always partly the leader’s.
- Leaders effectively, briefly and clearly communicate. They never repeat the obvious nor flagellate a deceased equine.
- Leaders do not judge, they assess. Recognizing that a person is an asshole is not necessarily a judgement. Judgement implies punishment, but assessment merely implies that your behavior should be modified to accommodate the assessment. Knowing that a person is an asshole allows you to alter your behavior to deal with that fact.
- Leaders do not “sock puppet” people: “You should say…” or “you should write…”—“should” is a bad word for good leaders.
- Leaders do not take advantage of those they lead. Leaders never take from their people– ever.
- Leaders never punish but always praise in public.
- Leaders always genuinely accept all blame for failure that occurs under their watch (all blame goes up!). Honestly, most failures are in leadership.
- Leaders never accept any of the praise for success under their watch (all praise goes down!). Their people made it happen: they know and believe this. By the way, unlike blame, praise should never make a stop with the leader– it should slip through a leader’s fingers to his or her subordinates.
- To sum up: all blame goes up, all praise goes down. No exceptions. Leaders know that if heads must roll, it is their fault. Always their fault.
- Leaders always acknowledge and apologize for their mistakes.
- The team’s mistakes are the leader’s own in all cases.
- Most of their mistakes come from failing to provide leadership (communication!) anyway.
- Leaders don’t gossip.
- Leaders always keep a confidence.
- Leaders avoid hypocrisy. No one is perfect, but leaders do as they say and say as they do when they are able.
- Leaders never go against a consensus they asked for from their people. If you know the best way to do something, do not insult your subordinates by pretending to consult with them.
- Leaders know that respect is a two-way street. It’s hard to respect or be respected by someone who treats you like shit. Grow up– it’s a losing game, the old high-school, popularity, “I’m better than you” social one-up bullshit. Put it away. Leaders are not better than other people.
- Leaders are all too human. Nobody is perfect. Fucking up is not only common, ubiquitous, and educational– it is necessary, it helps us breathe and occasionally de-sphyncterize ourselves.
- Leaders are on time. They know that it’s wrong to waste their people’s time.
- Leaders are always willing to throw away an idea, belief or cherished perception, even (especially) their own, if a better idea comes along. Funniest thing– most of the time any other idea is better than theirs alone.
- Leaders know that the force of example far outweighs the example of force for those they lead. They wag more, bark less and hardly ever bite because biting often hurts them, too. They set a pace and example and follow them.
- Leaders are uncomfortable being leaders. Though usually good at it by nature, they hate the role. Leadership is an ill-fitting suit of arrow-attracting armor. Only a fool would willingly put it on. Welcome to Agincourt for your first lesson in leadership 101, you French fucks.
- Leaders never have the luxury of complaining about their superiors to their subordinates. Leaders are, however, allowed to consult peers with such complaints and are truly blessed if those peers are worthy of and receptive to an earful of their pointless whining. Complaints go up– never down.
- Leaders must always listen to, hear and tolerate all complaints from their subordinates, especially those about the dear leader. Complaints are criticism. Such is life, get used to it. Do something about it and punishing the messenger is not the answer. Complaints go up– never down.
- Leaders have integrity. Integrity is simply saying as you do and doing as you say. Your actions and your words are in keeping with each other.
- Leaders are conduits of communication, facilitating channels and conflicts among subordinates, coordinating with peers, properly filtering messages from on high to the lowly proles and their counterparts.
- Leaders are empathetic. They have genuine empathy, particularly for the pain they might have inflicted on others through their (in)actions. Leaders touch those they lead in a deeply personal way. They try to understand what it is like to stand in others’ shoes– both in those they lead and their adversaries (think Robert E. Lee). They care. Really. No bullshit. That’s rare. Rarer still, some lucky few are downright empathic– I mean that in the “Star Trek” sense; but not as some extra-sensory mumbo-jumbo ability to cure others by touch. Rather, they lend their weight and energy as leaders to making things things work. They are healers. Think Gandhi, think MLK.
- Leaders establish and maintain clear goals and priorities. Not that they might change; but they should always be clear.
- Leaders don’t need sycophants. Egos are for pussies.
- Leaders are unafraid of the deep, dark, truthful mirror and bear the sting of the lessons they learn there. Good leaders struggle with self doubt, which makes them good leaders.
- Leaders praise loudly and criticize quietly. (Thanks to Catherine the Great for that one).
- Leaders are instant organizers.