Thoughts on Leadership

I had the opportunity to listen to an intriguing discussion on leadership the other day; one delivered informally by my father-in-law, Dave, a retired Major General in the Canadian military. He flew jets!

A family member, who herself is going on a journey of self discovery, had posed the question “what makes a great leader” and asked Dave to share his thoughts and reflections with any interested family members online via Microsoft Teams. Joining in the conversation were his three daughters, one son, three grandchildren, two son-in-laws and the daughter-in-law who organized it. It was a unique opportunity and a thoroughly enjoyable experience. As a byproduct, it was also a subtle demonstration of the power of great family leadership, a task that has been shared by Dave and Tannis, his spouse, over the past 65 years.

Dave’s response to the question on leadership did not surprise me. But the way he answered it, the succinctness of his response, and the conviction with which he delivered it, indicated that his answer was based on what he has lived – his personal experiences, including some less positive ones, that provided credence to his comments. It was obvious that he did not consult a textbook on leadership before forming his responses. However, the principles of leadership he espoused would certainly be found in any good textbook on the subject. I know a little bit about my father-in-law, gathered over the 15 years that I have known him. He is very bright, articulate, confident, patient, and very humble – the exceptional qualities you would expect to find in a great leader. He would never claim to be a great leader.

Dave started his presentation by providing a distinction between being a leader and being a great leader. He believes that anyone can be a leader but many who lead tend not to be very good at it. The quality of leadership ranges from terrible to great but only a very few could be considered great leaders. The distinction he made was that a great leader not only did all the “right things” any very good leader should do (I will get to those in a moment) but that a great leader has the added distinction of being tested in times of stress or moments of danger, when a cool head, strong nerve and a ‘take action attitude’ is required. Few experience this kind of challenge and if they do, fewer still handle it well enough to rise up to the great leader status.

He went on to define the critical abilities of a leader. Firstly, they need to be an excellent communicator. A leader needs to be able to speak and write honestly, clearly, and in common language in order to inspire and maintain credibility. Secondly, a leader must also be able to seek out and listen to opinions in order to gauge what must be done. A leader assembles the knowledge and information from those around her/him to make the best decision on how to move forward. And finally, a leader must not only walk the talk but also talk the truth. That perhaps is the hardest ability of all and one where many will fail.

These three principles are easy to write down but they are far more challenging to implement on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps the only point of difference I would make to Dave’s comments on what it would take to be a great leader is that of being tested in times of stress. It could be argued that some great leaders never have the opportunity to experience a crisis. This could be a result of timing (good or bad timing, depending on your perspective) or it could be a result of a leader’s ability to prevent stressful situations from impacting them in the first place. Maybe being a great leader can also occur in quiet times that go unnoticed, where one simply does the right thing every time, even when no one is looking. After all, judgment comes when under stress because at that moment, everyone is looking. Even historical reflection, with changing societal norms, can change our understandings and opinions of what makes a great leader. How many statues have we seen fall, over the past decade of reflection?

So perhaps, putting aside the ‘stress’ definition of great leadership and sticking with the principles of good leadership is all we should aspire to deliver. What Dave has provided, with his three principles, is for all intents and purposes the basis for being a great leader. I suspect that he always did the right thing, even when no one was looking. I think that will stand the test of time and categorize Dave as having provided great leadership, although I know he will strenuously deny this.