People are consumed with leadership. They read (and write) books about it. They attend classes and seminars about it. They watch movies and documentaries about it, all romancing leaders and leadership.
Everybody and their brother wants to be a leader. I believe this is so, in part, because most people yearn for at least a modicum of recognition that they are doing something meaningful on this planet. Leaders often get such recognition. Some will take it further, purposely seeking fame, not content with just peer approval.
And then there are those poor souls who have delusional fantasies of wealth, power, or omnipotence. They are megalomaniacs, misguided pathological egotists who are absolutely convinced that they are more important than me.
Now rest assured that I will not seek political office, nor become a television evangelist, nor even the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. For now, I am quite content running my site selection consulting business, Barber Business Advisors, LLC.
Reading and Watching
And while I have no desire to write in detail on what constitutes leadership, I do have some thoughts which occurred to me while reading Civil War history and watching the the NBA championship series. First, basketball and then war.
I believe the Dallas Mavericks prevailed over the Miami Heat for three reasons:
- They (the ball players) played as a team, which is a huge accomplishment in itself.
- They were well prepared and agreed on a common goal, which may seem obvious but is always easier said than done.
- They had good leadership, which molds and influences points one and two.
Notice that I did not mention stars. It’s good to have them, mind you, so long as they are not disruptive to the team. Stars do things that can awe and inspire us. And most stars become stars through hard work and preparation, and for that they should be credited.
But for teams to prevail, it’s usually not so important as to how a particular star performs so much as how well a team congeals and plays together. That’s when real magic happens.
So I have to think that Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle deserves most of the accolades. He set the tone, the pace, the mission for his team to best the Miami Heat, which on paper should have won. I don’t know about you, but I like that, and it has nothing to do with me living in Texas. Well, maybe a little bit.
Setting the Tone, Pace and Mission
In sports, business and war, (the Japanese say business is war) leaders to set the tone, the pace, and the mission. The most effective CEOs, coaches, and generals are typically driven, clear-headed people, not necessarily the smartest, but they know what has to be done and set their sights on it in an organizational way that motivates others.
As a Civil War buff, it is apparent to me how leadership shapes events. Allow me to set the stage. It is May 1864 in war-torn Virginia. Two opposing generals, both with a winning tradition, face each other for the first time.
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee is already a legend. His Army of Northern Virginia has a stirring history of whipping superior forces, largely because Lee is a very daring, skilled and creative battlefield tactician. In fact, he is a gambler with an uncommon ability to get into the head of his opposing counterpart and anticipate the next moves. Lee’s men adore him.
Along comes U.S. Grant, an uncommonly common man who has failed at just about everything in life with the exception of one thing — soldiering. Following a string of victories in the West, he finds himself commanding the Army of the Potomac and facing Lee. Grant soon learns to his dismay that his officer corps is intimidated by Lee, largely because they have been on the receiving end of Lee’s lethal brilliance.
But Grant is not intimidated. A slugfest soon ensues in which both armies are ensnarled in a confused death’s grip in tangled, jungle-like conditions. At the end of three days of savage fighting, the two ravaged and bloodied sides part, with the confederates having a slight tactical advantage by retaining the battlefield. The Battle of the Wilderness is finally over.
Marching away from hell, the rank and file in an exhausted Army of Potomac expected to turn north, cross the Rapidan River to rest, recuperate and plot anew. This was what the army had always done after such a massive bloodletting.
But it didn’t happen. Instead, at a crucial crossroads, Grant turned his army right and headed south. At that moment, virtually every private in Grant’s army knew that a new kind of commanding general was in charge, one who was going to fight. And, indeed, that is what happened, all the way to Appomattox Courthouse less than a year later, where Lee and Grant would meet in a farmhouse to discuss surrender terms. Lee, the aristocrat, would be resplendent in a new uniform. Grant would arrive in mud spattered boots and wearing a private’s sack coat.
Why do I recount this? What is my point? Well, leadership matters. Grant and Lee were both superb generals, albeit very different kind of men. But keep in mind that during the course of their military careers, both men made some horrible military blunders. For Lee, it was Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg; For Grant, it was a place called Cold Harbor. Both were frontal assaults that cost thousands of lives. But despite these mistakes, Grant and Lee are recognized as great field generals.
The point is that even the best leaders make mistakes, even bad mistakes, but they recover. Leaders will take calculated risks. For the entrepreneur, it takes courage and a leap of faith to start a new business, prerequisites that many people simply cannot stomach. (Prayer and Pepsid seem to help me with my new business.) Risk taking by its very nature implies a willingness to fail. You only hope that you can somehow learn from the pain.
And while Lee and Grant became quite accomplished at maneuvering and using their respective killing machines, I think it is a safe bet that neither read self-help books on how to be leaders. No doubt, their West Point education may have proved somewhat useful, but I submit they learned their deadly craft mostly from trial and error, which is ultimately the best teacher.
In his memoirs, finished literally on his deathbed, Grant said the turning point for him as a leader came during a fight which never happened. He was leading a force to attack a confederate encampment and expected that a battle would result. He said he was very scared. And then he discovered that the confederates had pulled out. Grant said he realized the confederate commander “had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him,” which gave Grant great insight as to what he must do.
Lee never wrote memoirs, but he made some telling remarks during the course of the war. He always referred to the federals as “those people” and never demonized them. In the aftermath of the battle of Fredericksburg where his troops literally annihilated charge after charge of union troops, he said, “It is good that war is so terrible, else we would grow too fond of it.”
Probably Lee’s best moment came right before the end, when he rejected the idea, proposed by some of his generals, to disband his army and wage a guerrilla war from the Blue Ridge Mountains, which conceivably could have drawn out the war for years longer. Lee recognized the need to end the killing and then called for reconciliation between the North and South.
Looking at Lee and Grant, I see that true leadership is often a very lonely, even agonizing endeavor. It means sacrificing oneself for something greater and suffering the consequences for both success and failure, as each have their costs.
Business leaders today could learn from these two men. It’s not about achieving fortune and wallowing in conspicuous consumption, although a few CEOs seem to revel in that. Rather, it is about giving yourself over and rallying people to achieve what might normally be the unachievable. And even failing along the way.
Now you can go read your self-help books on how to be a leader. Or you can bleed and become one.
Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm in Red Oak, Texas — www.barberadvisors.com He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org