On Leadership

[NOTE: This essay was originally written for a now-defunct publication, and was never published. The exclusivity period granted to them has expired, and it is being reprinted with minor edits.]

It’s rare that I quote the US Military, however they know a thing or two about Leaderhship. According to FM 22-100, there are 14 traits to being a good leader (if you’re an NCO or junior officer, you’ll recite LDRSHIP and only count 7. If you’re a senior officer, you’ll just smile). Whether you’re leading troops in combat, a multinational corporation in business, a college through its mission, a department in support of a business, or a team within a department in support of a mission, or even a trek leader on a hike or climb, these traits are the same. They’re not all necessary all the time, nor does an effective Leader need all of them, but the vast majority are critical. While the traits themselves are purloined, the verbiage is original.


If your subordinates wear suits, you cannot effectively lead in ripped jeans, a t-shirt, and Birkenstocks. Similarly, you cannot lead effectively if you whine, snivel, complain, or outwardly don’t have your shit together. A Leader is always a Leader… visibly.


Leadership is not easy, frequently unpopular, and at times more psycho-socially demanding than a human should have to endure. Regardless of this, a good leader can continue moving their group forward through the morass (it’s called “making progress”, by the way) and come out well on the other side. Hiring is easy, firing is not. Maintaining the status quo is easy, progressing into new areas is not. Staying quiet and allowing bad decisions to be made is easy, piping up and providing valid and evidence-driven alternatives is not.


No one is always right, but in fast-moving situations doing nothing is frequently worse than the wrong thing. If you wait to get 100% of the data needed to see The Big Picture, you may have cost money, time, jobs, advantages, lives- If you have 20% and it’s actionable, go for it. If you get another 20% later and need to correct the course, do it. If you get another 20% and need to turn around, fine. Leadership is experience and data -driven. Sitting around and waiting for the mythical Right Decision to float to the top is folly.


I know a lot of brilliant, wonderful humans who cannot effectively lead because of the inability for their subordinates and other leaders, to understand what it is they will expect. Sometimes a 1-page report suffices, sometimes they want a 30-page exegesis. Do you respect teammates who are inconsistent, can’t meet deadlines, make excuses, fail to take responsibility, or get vociferously defensive when challenged? So why would your subordinates appreciate those skills in their Leader? It’s always your fault, it’s always your job to get the deadlines met, it’s always your job to be clear about your requirements, excuses are irrelevant.


An effective Leader puts in just as much time as their most overworked subordinate. If you have minions working 70 hour weeks, you better be there 10 minutes before they get in and leave 20 minutes after they do. Every. Day. Effective Leadership depends on respect, and one of the quickest ways to lose it is to work a 9-to-5 when your minions are working overtime. If they’re there, you’re there too. If you’re not in a position to be helpful, go out and bring back some food and drinks for the overworked crew, and show them some…


If you’re miserable, combative, and don’t want to be at work or do your job, how can you expect your subordinates to be any different? Problems at home or with health get left at the door. You have to appear completely operational, and with Leadership Bearing every day. Every. Day. You are your team’s cheerleader as much as their coach.


You may be blessed with proactive subordinates who are constantly looking at new things the unit can do, or new ways of doing old things. Whether you can leverage that blessing or need to provide the same, looking for new (and ostensibly better) ways of accomplishing the mission are critical. This also contributes to retention-by-challenge, that I’ll talk about later.


Sharing group credit, providing honest insight, and ensuring your crew understands your decisions are for the good of the whole and not yourself, all play into earning subordinate respect. Being a credit whore, lying about specifications, clearly generating work for the group that serves no or little purpose other than making your job easier, don’t earn you anything positive.


In combination with Decisiveness, it is imperative that the decisions you make are sound. Even if they end up resulting in a negative outcome, the reasons and the information you used to come to that decision need to be obviously logical. Your subordinates should be able to believe that the decisions you’re making will not end up costing them, and solve problems.


Frequently, working relationships overlap with personal relationships. You may spend off-time playing sports with some of your subordinates, attending social functions, whatever. Group cohesion and morale will suffer irreparably if there is a hint of professional favoritism among subordinates. Similarly, putting an undue burden on a subset of your subordinates for questionable reasons (race, creed, sexual orientation, gender, etc. etc.) or because of exclusion (they don’t play golf with you, therefore…) will shred your credibility and significantly impact your effectiveness.


If there’s one trait I talk about over and over and over again, it is knowledge. Knowledge is what you know, not what you can find. If you can’t get through your workday without asking The Internet for help, you have insufficient knowledge to do your job, are mediocre at best, and much worse if you’re in a Leadership position. Using The Internet, or a book, or a colleague to acquire knowledge (a process we call “learning”) is perfectly fine, generally when you’re not being paid and only occasionally when you are.


One of the hardest things an effective Leader has to do, is break up their unit. Whether it’s a firing, or a punitive division, effective Leaders will be beside themselves leading up to these decisions. Not because they want everyone to like them, or they don’t like “being the bad guy”, but because this is an expression of the deepest betrayal of unit loyalty if done without sound judgment. That said, if the unit is floundering because of irresponsible, inept, or unbecoming members, failure to act is similarly treasonous. Also, publicly defending your unit in times of trouble to superiors, other leaders and/or customers is critical. Your subordinates need to understandyou will stand up for them when the chips are down, within reason.


If there was one Leadership Trait I have never cared much for, it is tact. Tact, generally, borders on dishonesty. It’s a way of sparing feelings at the cost of logic and full-disclosure. As a Leader, inevitably someone will come to you with the most brain-dead idea you’ve ever heard, and you shouldn’t tell them that. You should guide them in a better direction, point out some things perhaps they could look into. I frequently fail at this. Tact is inefficient and generates work, and those sins I can generally never condone.


Several times above I’ve talked about the importance of subordinate perception of your reasons. Effective Leadership is never Machiavellian, but should be transparently altruistic. Every command should help accomplish the group mission. Every punishment, for the betterment of the punished. Every assignment, a piece of progress. With delegation there will always be an aspect of making your job “easier”, but the perception of the delegation must be one of optimal assignment or division of labor, and not “hey, go do this so I can make my tee-time”.

Respect and Retention

That’s the list of what you need. I have never met an effective Leader that didn’t have visibly strong manifestations of 11-12 of those qualities, a decent leader with less than 10, or a mediocre manager with less than 8. They’re all within every single person. There’s no magic, there’s no particular -ology you have to take in college to acquire them, you just have to commit yourself to being an effective Leader.

So, now you’ve become a Great Leader, and have subordinates who respect you because you embody a whopping thirteen of the aforementioned traits: How do you retain the respect, and the employ, of your subordinates?


While some will disagree, the term “micromanagement” is not a positive form of governance. If you over-direct your crew to the point that they don’t feel empowered to make even trivial decisions without talking to you first, they’re going to rot. It doesn’t matter how amazing of a decision-maker you are, you need to foster independence and interdependence within your group, and get yourself out of the hour-to-hour, and even the day-to-day, decisions of your group. Sufficient autonomy promotes satisfaction that they are contributing in a useful way, and not just a tool in your toolbox.

Obviously, some people need correction and structure – hopefully just temporarily. Assuming they’re not incapable and you’re effective, they should be able to figure out the difference between a good decision and a bad decision, and toddle along progressively more independently. If not, perhaps they need reassignment or termination.


Even the laziest, least ambitious member of your crew will claim utter job dissatisfaction if they don’t have sufficient challenge or complexity in their duties. The key thing is sufficient. Too much, and you’ll end up with a puddle of inefficient goop in a chair.

Minions who respond well to challenge and complexity should be groomed for Leadership. As an effective Leader, you should give them duties or assignments that help them build up their 14 Leadership Traits over time.


Some psychology and communication knowledge help a lot with this, but simply you must foster a sense of purpose in your subordinates. The studies of B.F. Skinner are invaluable in understanding what makes [people] tick, but nothing is more important than a visible and fair system whereby efforts leading to success result in tangible rewards.

Efforts. Leading to success. Result in tangible rewards.

As an effective Leader, you are probably either a member of management or have a significant advisory capacity with management. Giving/recommending raises and promotions are certainly the most common tangible rewards you can offer. Giving someone a lapel pin and a laser-printed piece of paper after staying employed for 10 years is cute, but fairly worthless. It is a valid uniform recognition of service, don’t get me wrong, but it is insufficient for this discussion.

Other very effective rewards include extra paid time-off, inclusion in advisory processes, preferred parking or prominent commendation (akin to the “employee of the month” fiascoes some businesses use), and chairmanship of committees-of-import to the subordinate. Even a one-off invitation to some activity with other senior staff whom they may normally have no access to, can be a valuable “thank you”.

Some subordinates are and will be happy doing whatever it is they do, forever. Their purpose is to collect a paycheck and that’s it. Many, however, want to do new things, and want a path “up”- More responsibility; More trust; More money; More autonomy; More challenge; More purpose – and an effective Leader should help parlay the ambitions of the capable into the building of another effective Leader for tomorrow.

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1 Response to On Leadership

  1. Romeyn Prescott says:

    This is amazingly poignant. Sadly, too many people that SHOULD read this never will. 🙁

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