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7 Principles That Define Great Leadership

The dictionary defines management as the process of dealing with or controlling things or people. Leadership is defined as the action of leading a group of people or an organization.

I recently read a book that has had an impact on me, titled Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. The book explores key principles for successful organizational leaders to follow. Before I outline and comment on the book, it’s important to contrast the concepts of management and leadership.

Said another way, good managers are good at managing people and processes, while good leaders can inspire and motivate people to perform at a higher level.

Leaders do not have to manage people to be effective and they can be individual contributors who have influence within an organization. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell is a great book about the impact of “influencers” within organizations. Some people are fortunate to be both a good manager and a good leader; however, you can be one without the other. It requires hard work and humility to be highly effective at both.

As my role has changed over the years, I’ve pondered the dynamic between management and leadership quite a bit. This self-reflection on how to better myself as a manager and leader within my organization led me to read Extreme Ownership. The book mixes riveting accounts of military battles with application of leadership principles that have been tried, tested, and refined over time.

  1. Extreme Ownership

    Generally speaking, the book states that good leaders must have the mindset that they own everything in their world (i.e., extreme ownership). They must own the development of the strategy, education and communication of its parts to enable the team to execute it successfully.

    I admit that I tossed and turned all night after reading this section of the book. I remember thinking to myself, “Do I take full responsibility for everything in my universe? Do I clearly articulate the organizational goals to the team?”

    Upon self-reflection, I realized that I have plenty of room for improvement here.

  2. There Are No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders

    There are no bad teams, only bad leaders. When someone is not doing what they should be doing or when confusion on the team exists, good leaders must look in the mirror first to course correct. I lost another night of sleep thinking about this concept. Does everyone on the team clearly understand their role? Do I communicate correctly or effectively? Does the intended message get to each person on the team consistently or does it make its way through the organization like the phone game we all played at the dinner table when we were kids? Once again, I discovered I certainly need to spend more time in front of the mirror for the ongoing betterment of the team.

  3. The Only Meaningful Measure for a Leader Is Whether the Team Succeeds or Fails

    Without a team of people working together to accomplish a common goal, there can be no leadership. Good leaders pull together and rely on other people within the team to support one another, focusing exclusively on how to best accomplish the mission. The bottom line: the only accurate measure for a leader is whether the team succeeds or fails.

    This idea led me to wonder if everyone on the team knows how we measure success. How effectively do I communicate this consistently, and transparently? Does everyone understand the role they play on the team and how that role impacts our success? Our industry has evolved so much over the years that it is too easy to get caught up in the day to day without thinking about the one thing that will drive the team to the ultimate goal. It’s taken me some time, but I realize that remaining focused on the prize and aligning roles, tactics, and communication around our goal is critically essential for team success.

  4. Ego Check, Please

    The best leaders are not driven by ego or personal agendas. Instead, they focus on the mission and how best to accomplish it. They operate with humility. The author explains that leaders must genuinely believe in their team’s goal, working as part of something greater than themselves and their interests. Often, the most challenging ego with which to deal is our own. Many of the disruptive issues that arise within any team can be attributed directly to an ego problem. Unfortunately, when personal agendas become more important than the team’s success, performance suffers and failure can be the result. Like the dark side of the force for all of you Star Wars fans, egos can cloud and disrupt everything. Good news: I can fit my head through the doorway at work every day! In all seriousness, this issue of ego is pervasive and one I’ve witnessed in every organization I’ve worked. Managing egos is extremely difficult, but must be handled proactively with effective communication for the overall good of the cause.

  5. The “Tortured Genius”

    This is another great concept outlined by the authors – and one I had to use in my title! No matter how obvious their failure or how valid the criticism, the “Tortured Genius” accepts zero responsibility for mistakes, makes excuses, and blames everyone for their failings and those of their team. In the mind of the Tortured Genius, the rest of the world cannot see or appreciate the genius in what they are doing. An individual with a Tortured Genius mindset can have a negative impact on the team’s performance.

    This concept has been very pervasive at most of the organizations at which I’ve worked. I’ve had success steering others away from the tortured genius persona through honest, open feedback and career development. However, I have not always practiced what I’ve preached. Candidly, this section of the book hurt a bit as at times, I’ve been the Tortured Genius over the years. To “cure” myself, I’ve undertaken a two-step approach. The first step for me has been to admit to it. Secondly, I have engaged more readily in leadership development programs, in candid conversations with supportive teammates, and in reflective thinking.

  6. Leadership Is a Team Game

    In a particularly important section of the book, the authors point out that leadership is not one person leading a team. Instead, it is a group of leaders working together, up and down the chain of command, to lead.

    As someone who at times has tried to boil the ocean, I have come to my senses in recent years. If you try to lead an organization on your own, no matter how good you think you are, you will not be able to handle it. Good leaders surround themselves with high performing individuals who help make them – and the team – better. Furthermore, it is critically important to work together to maintain clarity of goal, break down the silos; avoid the “us” vs. “them” mentality and support and depend on one another. If teams in silos forsake the team and operate independently or try to work against each other, the results can be catastrophic to the overall team’s performance.

  7. Don’t Let The Status Quo Persist

    This short statement says a lot. I’ve been in the healthcare industry for 20 years. Since the dawn of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the industry has changed exponentially more rapidly than in the past. There has been consolidation, new entrants to the market, new products and services; and technology advancement.

    Good leaders must remain vigilant of the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats; and must evolve the business model to maintain a competitive advantage. Change is tough for most people. It can be particularly difficult to lead an organization through a lot of change; however, if the business does not change ahead of or with the times, complacency can result in failure.

I do not pretend to be a good or bad manager or leader. My intent in writing this post is to share an excellent book containing lessons and great leadership principles that provided insights to me as manager and leader in my organization. With years under my belt and more experience at my back, I’ve made an effort to acknowledge my strengths and weaknesses much more freely these days and continue to improve the things that I do not do well. Extreme Ownership is a book that has empowered me to look at myself in greater depth and to focus on personal changes that will positively impact the team and our mission to win.