Leaders Who Learn
Some aspects of leadership can be taught, but it takes far more to grow an exceptional leader. Truly valuable leadership takes place in difficult and uncertain times when the company, the unit or the nation is at risk. That kind of leadership takes drive, character and mentoring by one's seniors.
Exceptional leaders share a thirst for knowledge about the part they must play. To improve their skills, they study the art of their trade. As the Civil War raged, in order better to understand his role as commander-in-chief, Abraham Lincoln studied military art and queried his officers. As he searched for generals who could win, his skills steadily matured. From McClellan to Hooker to Meade and Grant, Lincoln's understanding of his role and his grip on his generals evolved and improved. Great leaders drive themselves to learn how to improve their skills at leading.
In tough situations character matters. Values reinforce the gut instincts that derive from character. Those instincts assert themselves in the most abstract and threatening situations in which leaders find themselves. Institutions and communities foster and reinforce those values. Faced with implementing the legally objectionable original charter for the Commissions at Guantanamo, the Staff Judge Advocates of the Services went together to the Secretary and successfully demanded that the charter be rewritten. Their protest came from the gut values of two professions, the law and the military.
Finally, senior leaders play a crucial role as mentors. They can reach two levels down in their organization encouraging and grooming subordinates. With directed informal counseling, they reinforce good leadership. By creating events in which their potential successors relive past decision dilemmas, they foster the instincts needed in tough times. By helping to guide the career experiences of subordinates, they ensure leaders intent on learning get the experiences in which good instincts are honed. George C. Marshall took an intense interest in the leader development of his subordinates throughout his career. When selected to attend the Marshall's weekly seminars on history and military art, officers at the Infantry School at Fort Benning in the 1930s knew they were receiving a special opportunity. Marshall's "Black Book" of proven leaders served the nation well as officers who had impressed him went into critical commands throughout WWII. Eisenhower, Bradley, Collins, Ridgeway and Taylor come to mind.
Leadership cannot simply be taught. It takes personal investment by the individual and the drive to excel, internalizing the values of institution in which he or she serves, and the personal involvement of mentors to provide the growth and seasoning that leads to exceptional leadership under fire.
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