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By Lieutenant Christopher A. Abel, U.S. Coast Guard
A good manager can keep things running effectively so the job gets done; a true leader inspires his people with a sense of mission.
No character trait better identifies the exemplary leader than the power to ex- cite—to give work a greater meaning. Britain’s greatest naval hero, Horatio Nelson, was a master of inspiration. His many subordinates were enthused about their task and worked with pride. Each was embarked on a professional adventure. In 1805, when Nelson sent his famous signal, “England expects that every man will do his duty,” to all the units in his fleet, cheers filled the air as 18,000 sailors were charged with patriotic fervor and primed for action.
For a few individuals, inspiration comes from inside themselves. Their only need is task direction. A leader blessed with such subordinates has little left to do, except to make sure they stay on the road he has chosen. A word of praise, a show of interest, and an occasional expression of gratitude are virtually all these chargers need to keep them going.
The vast majority of individuals, though, need a little help in getting started; they need a spark to overcome their own inertia. A worthy leader provides this energy.
Motivation cannot be purchased with pay or benefits, early liberty, or an easy duty schedule. Desire often bums its brightest where work is hard and hours are long. In the military, in particular, this is important to remember. No pay incentive is going to matter much in combat. A leader who accepts this will spare himself much grief. His job is to make the work itself important. Leaders such as Lord Nelson and General George S. Patton appealed to patriotism, organizational pride, and personal worth.
Infusing work with importance breeds the desire to do it well. This challenge is faced by all leaders. Those who master the task inevitably rely upon some kind of vision. Those who do not suffer from a myopic focus on “just doing a job.” Visionary leaders look into the future to find a target that beckons; they imagine an unrealized state of affairs that is worth striving for. Whether defending the nation, probing the bounds of technology, or seeking the cure to a deadly disease, man works hardest and best when set on the path that leads directly to a better tomorrow.
A common purpose supplies the adhesive that binds discrete actors into a team. Its absence is “the chief source of unhappiness in any collection of individuals.”1 Napoleon I revolutionized warfare when he introduced the concept of martial morale. His soldiers were eager to fight and risk death for the glory of France. Napoleon’s men were victorious because they so wanted to win.
A good leader is also a student of human experience. A survey of the past helps put the present in perspective and gauges the range of one’s future possibilities. Vice Admiral James Stockdale, the legendary prisoner-of-war commander, is unequivocal on this point. “The single most important foundation for any leader,” he writes, “is a solid academic background in history.”2 This study naturally extends to the history of one’s own unit and to knowledge of those men and women serving in its ranks. By developing a sense of his subordinates’ experience and a feel for their capabilities, a visionary leader can avoid setting out in pursuit of the purely fantastic. At the same time, by listening to the needs and aspirations of others, he can generate a vision they will want to share.
This vision should be ambitious; it should strain the boundaries of what is deemed possible. Indeed, the more “unattainable” the goal, the greater the excitement that tends to surround it, and the deeper the commitment to making the dream a reality at last. An exhilarating image of tomorrow to contrast with a comparatively mundane today provides the spark that ignites the fire.
But merely developing a vision is only the start of an organization’s journey. A leader must also map out a sure route that will end at the desired point. Blazing this trail requires interim goals; a long trip becomes several excursions. Otherwise, the journey assumes daunting proportions and may appear untraversable to many. A scheme of discrete steps forestalls intimidation. Charting this course requires great thought and attention to detail. Each interim goal must appear reasonably attainable from the jump-off point of the preceding one; the organization must believe that the vision can be achieved and that the leader’s path is the best way to get there. Initial goals should be well within the organization’s reach. Later steps may be larger and much more difficult, once confidence has been established. Vivid reminders of progress made and of the goals not yet achieved are frequently helpful in keeping a flame lit. Sortie boards and posted refresher-train-
WNALD b. WILLIAMS lng checkoff lists are just two examples °f how the troops can help keep score. Success depends on making progress that can be monitored, measured, and Marked. Failure to do so will result in Uncertainty and then frustration.
Once an attractive vision is created and a strategy for attaining it has been devised, the leader must move on to purposeful action. Now the visionary leader becomes an educator, salesman, and guide, with the task of winning commit- utent to the new plan. This critical effort should be directed first at subordinate Baders, Their support and enthusiasm are essential to timely success. Naysayers must either be converted or replaced. Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz once said °f motivation, “The problem is easy. You get rid of the players who aren’t motivated.”3 Although understating the challenge, Holtz’s point is valid: You share in the passion or you are not on the team. If the vision is sound and the road map makes sense, winning others’ commitment will not be a problem.
Having started the fire in subordinate Baders, it is time to set the rank and file ablaze. This function ideally is performed by direct communication between the leader and his troops. Any leader’s vision burns brightest when presented by the °ne who gave it birth. While speaking ability is a plus, the decisive factor is ardor. The leader’s vision must be clear enough to be understood by everyone at
once. The leader should be careful to illustrate that individual effort leads to success; that day-to-day work converts dreams into reality. This is not a pep talk. This calls for missionary zeal; this is where the flame takes hold or where it dies.
But no one’s excitement can be stored and tapped at will; it is imperative that an organization, once inspired, be permitted to start its journey right away. Any significant delay in converting an outfit’s desire into productive action will snuff out its flame. In addition, even after the trip has begun, the fire requires attention; it cannot survive without tending. All too often, a promising start becomes an abandoned undertaking. Successful leaders tend to guard against this fate by constant repetition of the dream. Subtle reminders of it surface everywhere, and progress made toward achieving goals is measured, celebrated, and rewarded.
As subordinates remain focused squarely on success, though, the leader needs to think about the possibility of failure. What if things go wrong? For an outfit on a mission, failure, if handled poorly, can be a devastating blow. It is therefore essential to anticipate such reversals and to have a plan in mind for meeting them. If a problem does occur, the leader should confront it right away. Nothing can be gained by ignoring trouble when it happens. Most important is to learn as much as possible from the episode and then ensure that it docs not take place again. A leader should accept the blame himself and keep the unit’s focus on the vision. In virtually every case, a setback is nothing more than that. The danger is in believing that the game is over and all is lost. This attitude invites despair. Defeat is more a product of bankrupt desire than of unattained goals. A leader must keep his subordinates’ spirit intact, using setbacks to strengthen resolve and then try again.
In addition, a leader should never assume that a goal cannot be outdated. Changes in circumstance are common, and minor adjustments may be necessary if the vision is to remain relevant and compelling. One pleasant occasion for this modification is some achievement toward the outfit’s ultimate goal. Celebration of success should be followed by raising the standard.
Those who merely manage other people need not do so with a vision, but those who lead them need to see into the future. Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus have summed up the situation in their book on leadership in modem times:
“Any competent manager can make it possible for people in the organization to make a living. An excellent manager can see to it that work is done productively and efficiently, on schedule, and with a high level of quality. It remains for an effective leader, however, to help people in the organization know pride and satisfaction in their work. Great leaders often inspire their followers to high levels of achievement by showing them how their work contributes to worthwhile ends.”4
A true leader can ignite a spark that can turn into a flame that can power any organization. This is when the rank and file are committed to a mission. They are not just doing a job.
'S.L.A. Marshall, “Human Nalure and Leadership," in Sipes, Joel, D., editor, Leadership: In Service of Country and Humanity (New London: Coast Guard Academy, 1968), p. 99.
’James Bond Stockdalc, “Educating Leaders,” in Robert Taylor and William Rosenbach, editors. Military Leadership: In Pursuit of Excellence (Boulder: Westview Press, 1984), p. 66.
’Network television interview with Lou Holtz, Notre Dame’s head football coach, December 1988. 4Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, Leaders (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), pp. 92-93.
Lieutenant Abel is a law specialist assigned to the staff of the Maintenance and Logistics Command. Atlantic. He won prizes in the Naval Institute's 1987 and 1988 leadership essay contests. He is the Coast Guard contributing editor to Proceedings.
Proceedings / June 1990