I was recently on a panel where the moderator asked, “What are the three most important things every leader needs today?”
It is an intriguing question--one that reminded me of the movie where Moses comes down from the mountaintop with three tablets, each with five commandments. With a wry smile, he says to the throng that has gathered, “I bring you …” and then, as he drops one of the tablets, without missing a beat, he says, “The 10 Commandments.”
What are the three, or the 10, most important things leaders need today? What has changed? And what remains fundamental? Is there a new formula for leadership? Or, is it just doing more of what history has taught us through the ages? Perhaps it is a little of both.
The Balancing Act
One of the most important things leaders need today is the ability to retain two seemingly contradictory thoughts, feelings, or ideas at the same time. Some of those thoughts and feelings have to do with the constant mixed signals we are bombarded with every hour of every day. The job market is improving, but not for everyone. For every sign of hope, there is a tugging concern.
Can we be optimistic without missing warning signs? Can we be skeptical while maintaining a positive outlook? Can we hold two conflicting ideas in our mind at the same time, see the wisdom of each, and make a decision that is better than a compromise?
The answer lies in a story about General Dwight D. Eisenhower on the eve of the invasion of Normandy. As he reviewed his troops, he knew that the mission was fraught with peril. Operation Overlord, as it was known, would almost certainly determine the outcome of World War II. The key to defeating the Nazis hinged on liberating German-occupied France. The invasion of Normandy was planned for June 1944, and the size, scope, and complexity of the assault were unprecedented.
As historian Stephen Ambrose explained, “In one night and day, 175,000 fighting men and their equipment―including 50,000 vehicles of all types―were transported across 60 to 100 miles of open water onto a hostile shore against intense opposition. They were either carried, or supported, by 5,333 ships and craft of all types and almost 11,000 airplanes.”
On June 6th, Eisenhower released the order, which was read aloud to the Allied forces before they stormed the beaches of Normandy. “You are about to embark upon a great crusade. … The eyes of the world are upon you. … Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped, and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely. … But the tide has turned. … I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than victory. Good luck. Let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God, upon this great and noble undertaking.”
After the operation was successful―though not without many loss of life―Paris was liberated.
What is not known about this attack is that Eisenhower tucked a statement in his wallet the day of the invasion and then forgot about it. When he found it later, he threw it in the trash, but an aide salvaged it. Here’s what it said: “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air, and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”
Eisenhower knew, inherently, that two of the most important qualities needed by a leader are to have enough doubt to question yourself and to have enough confidence to forge ahead. It is an amazing balancing act―to be confident and humble simultaneously.
The strength test
The next measure of true leaders is what I call The Strength Test. This is not a measure of the strength of the leader, but the strength of the people around that leader. How much disagreement is there among the leadership team? How much healthy debate? How much open dialogue is there? How many secrets?
The true reading of how strong a leader is can be measured by how willing his executive team is to rock the boat. Has the leader set a tone where he can be questioned? How far is someone allowed to go with their curiosity?
As the Pulitzer-prize winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin shared, Abraham Lincoln's political genius emerged after the one-term congressman rose from obscurity to prevail over his better-known rivals to become president. The differences between him and his opponents were striking―they differed over slavery, with feelings so entrenched that secession and civil war seemed inevitable.
As Goodwin tells us, Lincoln succeeded because of the strength of his convictions and character, as well as because he possessed an extraordinary ability to put himself in the place of other men, to experience what they were feeling, and to understand their motives and desires. It was this capacity that enabled Lincoln as president to bring his disgruntled opponents together, create the most unusual cabinet in history, and marshal their talents to the task of preserving the Union and winning the war.
Ultimately, Goodwin claims, the new president overcame the obstacles he faced because he understood the potential and talent of his former rivals and brought them into his confidence by listening to them and winning their respect. His ability to recognize divergent points of view forged a stronger executive team than had ever existed in the White House and helped shape what we have come to know as the most significant presidency in the nation's history.
Lincoln’s lesson for leaders who followed him is to surround yourself with people who are, at least, as strong as you, and listen to them. Let them know that you value their opinions and want to hear their thoughts―whether you agree with them or not. Then, create the space and time to reflect and seek your own counsel. Blend those voices into your own, and create something that is bigger than yourself―bigger than anything you could have ever imagined.
I have one cautionary story that I keep in the back of my mind. It was told to me by the chief executive officer of an organization we have consulted with for more than two decades. The first time he met one of our consultants―whom I admire because of her innate insights and unique ability to speak truth to power―he was particularly upset about how she handled a situation. He shared with her what he was feeling, and she considered what he was saying, then shook her head and said, “There are two things I don’t understand. One is why you are so upset about this particular issue, and the other is why, as the CEO, you are even dealing with it.”
At first, he just glared at her and thought, “Who in the world does she think she is?” Then he paused, and contemplated, “Why am I so upset and so concerned with this issue, which is not really something that I should be focusing on as the leader of this organization?”
This charismatic leader realized that he had created an organization that bowed to his every wish and echoed his every thought. And, he realized, it was also not what the organization needed to move forward. That’s when he agreed to take her on as a coach, and together they worked to create an organization that could embody his vision―being more collaborative, curious, engaged, and innovative. One of the most important things he had to learn was to get out of his own way, so that he would not get in the way of the organization.
The lessons of General Eisenhower and President Lincoln resonate today. Leaders need to be honest with themselves and with those who they surround themselves with. Leaders have to question and doubt themselves―until they are ready to take action. Then they need to be ready to move forward with full determination.
Leaders need to make sure that they are not surrounding themselves with a bunch of people who agree with their every thought. Instead, they need to encourage debate, diversity of thoughts, and discord. And in between all those arguments, they need to hear the beauty of that discordant cacophony of diverse voices and opinions.
Leaders need to hear all the wrong notes first before they make a symphony out of those disparate sounds.
Patrick Sweeney is the president of Caliper, an international management consulting firm based in Princeton, New Jersey; email@example.com