Friday, July 18, 2008


A humorous moment from Atlantis was when McKay was recording his "final words" before he was about to die. They consisted mostly of ramblings and emotional introspection, but the humor was that every beat he would say "ah yes, back to my topic... Leadership."And every scene that came back to that recording, he had apparently yet again diverted from his topic.

For whatever reason, I feel compelled to offer some reflections on leadership. Whether or not this will degenerate into me rambling has yet to be seen. Further, it is possible (if not likely) that my presentation of thoughts on leadership (as with McKay) points more to a lack of leadership ability on my part, of which I freely confess.

So what is leadership? More importantly, what are the qualities of a good leader?

Here are a few thoughts of mine: (in no particular order)

1) Knowledge. This does not mean omniscience, or even specialized knowledge. Good leadership requires good comprehensive knowledge. Enough knowledge to always be able to see how thoughts ought to work, and how their parts generally should operate to accomplish their goal. A good leader will also have some degree of knowledge about how people function, and know how to recognize people's needs, reactions, etc.

2) Perspective. Good leaders are always able to see the big picture. As with knowledge, there is a need for awareness of the details, but a good leader will always see how each parts each function, and each step reaches the bigger goal, and is keenly aware when group diverts from its goal. On some level it is ideal for a good leader to be able to see when the smallest unite diverts, but this is not entirely necessary. What is more important is that the leader has a clear sense of the goal and a clear sense of how the parts will function to accomplish this goal.

3) Clarity. A good leader needs clarity in order to assess all the available information, filter out all of the irrelevant details, and then synthesize the correct decision. A good leader does not get confused when challenges arise. He does not get overwhelmed by their imposing nature, but is always sharp in seeing where such things actually pose a challenge to the goal, and what must be done to overcome these obstacles. This again does not require having the answer, but having enough comprehensive clarity not to be overburdened by an apparent challenge, and always maintaining clarity for the big picture. Further, the leader is aware of the needs of the individual parts, and is always factoring in the necessary steps in providing for these needs when appropriate.

4) Accuracy. A good leader probably will make mistakes, but he will always strive for accuracy. In our day and age, their is a common spirit of "fudging" the details, or getting by with the "gist". A good leader strives not necessarily for perfection, but that the parts function accurately, efficiently, and smoothly.

5) Lieutenants. A good leader will always assign skilled lieutenants. This means especially with bigger tasks involving several complex elements having people under the leader who work together well, and also posses some if not all of the qualities of a good leader. The lieutenant is necessary to supplement the leader's comprehensive knowledge with specialized knowledge, reporting the operation and needs of the individual parts (filtered appropriately), and advice and insight into problems based on their specialized knowledge. Lieutenants will likely know more than the leader in their specific field, but if the leader meats the criteria for knowledge, then they will trust his "big picture" knowledge, and submit their specialized knowledge appropriately. A good leader will also trust the input from his lieutenants, and filter this information through the "big picture" and direct them accordingly.

6) Confidence. A good leader recognizes his weaknesses, and also appropriately recognizes his mistakes. But a good leader never lets this lead to second guessing. This must be balanced with knowledge to that the leader is not overconfident, but also that when failures and challenges arise, that the group does not loose heart but can trust that their leader still knows what should be done and is capable of making the right decisions. Confidence does not mean being flawless, but a confident leader is astutely aware of what he can accomplish, what the group can accomplish, and does not let failure challenge what the group is capable of. Further, without confidence a leader will constantly second guess his decisions.

7) Communication. This will overlap with some of the above (especially accuracy). A good leader is able to communicate effectively. This means being able to convey information accurately and being able to accurately understand received information. This also means honest and accurate assessment of all input. A bad leader will simply ignore undesirable input of a subordinate.

8) Strength. A good leader may not possess physical strength, but definitely needs strength of will. This helps the group accomplish their goals when challenges arise, and helps maintain the unity and smooth operation of the group. Further, this is necessary when conflict arises.

9) Wisdom. This also falls under a few different categories, but essentially a good leader must have wisdom. This is not just knowledge or accuracy, but also knowing when and how is best to apply these skills.

The various difficulties that a leader may face:

1) Obstacles -- people, events, or things that get in the way of accomplishing the groups goal. These are either active or passive.

2) Conflict -- when the parts of the group no longer function together. This can be either interpersonal conflict, conflict of interest, or a breakdown of communication. This can also be when one part of the system is attempting to usurp leadership. A good leader knows how to respond to this in an appropriate, controlled, and rational manner. A bad leader will respond emotionally, or with inappropriate extremes.

3) Failure -- either part(s) or the whole fail, and the leader must know how to respond appropriately.

4) Decisions -- while decision making is an essential function of the leader, it is also the most difficult. Making good, rational, and accurate decisions is more than just the "flip of a coin". A good leader is able to assimilate all the relevant information, access the situation rationally, and conclude with an informed decision that he will stand by confidently. The most difficult time is when a decision has been made, and new information arises (either immediately, or later on). A good leader is able to assimilate the new information, and make any necessary corrections.

Finally, I will give some thoughts on what a good "follower" is.

First, he trusts his leader. Admittedly, this is something that at some level must be earned by the leader. In many situations, leadership is assumed and not earned, but the good leader will always take the necessary steps to earn trust. However, a good follower must respond with trust. For any leader to succeed, his subordinates must trust his decisions and perspective.

Second, he must submit. It is all too common that "followers" will attempt to challenge and usurp their leader unless he has demonstrated a strong ability to lead. This only breaks down the system further, resulting in some level or another of anarchy. This is especially difficult for followers when the subordinate has superior leadership abilities (whether perceived or actual). Submission is a necessary skill in life, as every leader is in submission to someone else. Learning to practice submission makes a better follower, and makes better leaders. This can also be difficult when the follower's specialized knowledge seems to contradict the leader's apparent perspective knowledge and decisions. This can either be a result of bad communication (the leader is not communicating how the big picture alters the perspective on the specialized knowledge), bad leadership (the leader is not assimilating the specialized knowledge), or stubbornness (the subordinate is not submitting to the leaders perspective knowledge).

Third, he must follow. This falls under submission and trust, but is separate. Even when the follower disagrees, he must follow the decisions of the leader. When he attempts to challenge or usurp the leader, the system only breaks down. This only breeds disloyalty and division.

Human nature is sinfully flawed, and so there are no perfect leaders or followers. But this does not remove the ideal of the perfect leader, and every leader, whether over large or small ventures must pursue this ideal and attempt to grow and better himself.

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