Stephen Martin '67 on Leadership


By Stephen Hawley Martin

September 23, 2012


Having worked in advertising for forty years, a career that caused me to come in contact with leaders of many companies, and because I've ghostwritten books for several CEOs, I've met a quite a number of people who made it to top of their companies and industries. A few have become friends. What I learned from them has allowed me to compile a list of attributes of the leaders I observed.


Humility Tops the List:

Humility, which is the acknowledgment of who we are in relation to others, is essential to effective leadership. A leader secure enough to admit he or she does not have, or need to have, all the answers is typically rewarded with loyal followers. A leader whose focus is on him or herself, and how much he knows or is capable of doing alone, lacks empathy--the ability to stand in another's shoes--and that usually rubs people the wrong way. This is not to say that self-obsessed people do not make it into leadership positions. They do, and I've observed several. But they tend, eventually, to fall from grace. When things turn south, and inevitably there are going to be bad times, those around them do not stand by them. On occasion I've witnessed what a few hundred years ago would have been called a palace revolt - where members of the inner circle, those closest to the throne, unite to oust an egocentric leader.

Most successful leaders are confident, of course. But in the case of those with staying power - those who have loyal followers - the confidence they exude is an outgrowth of the passion and commitment they feel to their cause. The leader believes change will happen through persistence, hard work, and knowing he or she has the right system and is doing the right thing. In this way, the cause becomes bigger than the leader. Arrogant leaders, on the other hand, believe they are greater than the cause. People are drawn to leaders who appear confident and effective, but they warm to and give lasting support to those who combine self-confidence with humility.

Here's another area for self-evaluation that's related to humility. It's important as a leader to always remember that giving credit to others creates and builds loyalty. Rather than take credit for achievements, great leaders build loyalty on top of trust by giving credit where credit is due-and perhaps sometimes even when it is not.

For example, many people believe Ronald Reagan was one of the great leaders of the twentieth century. Reagan almost never took credit for the achievements of his administration. Instead, he was quick to praise his staff. In doing so he achieved a high level of loyalty among his followers.

Few have said it better than legendary football coach, Paul "Bear" Bryant, "If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes really good, then you did it. That's all it takes to get people to win football games for you."

What else is a great leader able to do?

Well, for one thing, he has thought deeply about the organization he leads and where it needs to go. As a result, he has developed a plan and has that plan firmly in mind. And perhaps as important has having identified a course of action and a result to be realized, the leader is able to articulate it in the form of a vision his team can easily grasp. For Reagan it was his "Shining City on a Hill." The leader points the way for the team to proceed to the realization of the vision and in doing so generates optimism and bolsters belief the goal can be reached. And, as has Jesus said, "All things are possible for him who believes." I've seen it many times. When everyone is pulling together in the same direction amazing results are possible.

What are some other Qualities of Great Leaders . . .

Believe it or not they tend to be good listeners. They are not mentally forming a response while someone is talking, but really stop and take time to hear and understand what those under their supervision are trying to tell them.

It is true that great leaders are almost always good listeners. They want to know what others think, and do not believe they, themselves, always have the best or right answer. They are smart enough to use the intelligence and the experience of others, and understand a good idea can come from anywhere at any time and from anyone. When a great leader comes in contact with an idea that makes sense, he recognizes and heeds the sensation of truth that resonates within. You might say the idea or thought seems to "click." Timid or unsure individuals often will dismiss this feeling. Great leaders do not. They are secure with themselves. They see when someone else has a better idea, and they have the self-confidence to put that idea to work.

Great leaders have and show respect for the people they lead, whether they are soldiers, employees, players on a team, or citizens. They lead by example and by doing so demonstrate they are worthy of being followed. They are personally committed to the institution they lead, as well as the objective of the institution, and are out front personally doing whatever they can to reach it.

For everyone to pull together for success, leaders need to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty right next to those in their charge. The goal is for everyone to feel a sense of equality, that they are members of the same team regardless of the titles that follow their names. Employees, team members, the people being led -- are not blind. They see what is going on. They watch their leaders closely and determine for themselves if each one is "walking the talk." Employees quickly figure out which leaders are personally committed and which are not. They know which ones are only looking out for number one, and they respond to and follow those leaders accordingly.

That's why it is important to focus on building a team, not on individual stars. The team leader's primary job is to serve the team, to facilitate, to clear the path so that the team can make what needs to happen, happen--in order to reach the goal. To quote Jesus once again--perhaps the greatest leader ever--after all, he has two billion followers worldwide a full 2000 years after his death, "Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the servant of all." In other words, you do not get to be, and you do not get to stay the leader -- by serving yourself and having others serve you. People follow because ultimately you are serving them.

Now, let me be clear, this is not to say that you should roll over and do the work others should be doing. A leader needs to orchestrate things so that everyone is pulling his or her own weight. If some people are doing more, and others less, disharmony is going to be the result, and that can be extremely counterproductive. So let me say there are techniques you can use that will insure everyone does the jobs they are assigned.

An entire college course could be taught on how to get people in a business accept accountability. It's something many companies pay big bucks to management consulting firms to help them accomplish. I know because I've written a book on the subject called Lean Enterprise Leader: How to Get Things Done without Doing It All Yourself. I'm going to give you the two-minute nutshell version--the most important essence of it--right now.

You start by having regular team meetings. If you are the head of a fraternity at Hampden-Sydney, your team is made up of the brothers responsible for different areas: the rush chairman, the treasurer, the head of the house committee, and the social chairman. If you are the CEO of a company, your team is comprised of your direct reports: the head of marketing, the head of finance, the head of production, and so forth.

Okay, let's say you are a leader and you know where the organization needs to go. You have goals and you have an action plan. Your team meets each week to report on how things are going, what new issues have come up, and to determine what needs to happen to resolve those issues. These decisions are made in the meeting as well as needs to do what. But you don't stop just because a decision was made. Unless you want to risk things falling through the cracks, what's been decided needs to be documented in such a way that each person responsible for getting something done is held accountable. The way you can do this is through action reports.

Action reports are a device many advertising agencies use to make sure work gets done for clients. In ad agencies I worked for and ran, very little would have gotten done and a great deal of important stuff would have never happened without action reports. Every member of the team who worked on a client's business got a copy of a report when it was issued, as did the agency's contact at the client company.

An action report is similar to the minutes of a meeting except it leaves out superfluous discussion and zeros in on decisions made and actions to be taken. It states specifically the individual who is to take action on each item, and the deadline that was agreed upon.

With action reports, accountability is in black and white. Nothing could be clearer because it's right there on paper. Each weekly team meeting ought to begin with a review of items that should have been completed, and it should conclude with a review of new action items identified during the meeting, verification of who is responsible for each action, and agreement on target completion dates. If someone doesn't think he can get a particular item completed in the allotted time, that person needs to say so, and why. Then a different date can be negotiated and agreed upon.

Believe me, the system works. It works because of peer pressure. If a team member doesn't get a job done when he said he would have it done, he will be put on the spot and have to explain why to the entire team.

Okay. Let's stop and reflect for a minute. If you evaluate yourself against the qualities of a leader I've spoken about, I would not be surprised if you found some things about yourself that you may need to change.

Seeing yourself and others in a new light is the first step. It is something that would be of benefit to most people. Rather than thinking of captain of the football team, or president of the Intra-Fraternity Council, for example, we might improve by seeing ourselves as coaches or key players on a team. Rather than regarding others as subordinates, we must come to view them as fellow team members.

Suppose you identify some areas you'd like to improve. How can you go about a personal transformation? Some people are going to think this is impossible. "I was born this way. I can't be somebody I'm not," will be the position they take.

They are wrong. Anyone can change.

In his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey writes about a realization that altered his life. He was wandering among stacks of books in a college library when he came across one that drew his interest. He opened it, and was so moved by what he read that he reread the paragraph many times. It contained the simple idea that a gap exists between stimulus and response, and that the key to growth and happiness is how this gap is used. A person has the power to choose in that fraction of a second. If he sees a fellow worker who happened to be a subordinate based on how he regarded him yesterday and who appears to be having difficulty with a particular task, he can direct another worker who also happened to be a subordinate yesterday to help, or he can be the one to help. So, the bottom line is, don't react. Use the gap. Make the right decision.

In closing, let me say that Richard Carlson, the author of Don't Sweat the Small Stuff . . . and It's All Small Stuff, picks up on the same idea. His advice is always to take a breath before speaking, or taking action. If you adopt this, you will rid yourself of the habit of reacting in a repetitive way. You will begin taking a considered approach, and taking a considered approach can lead to all sorts of good things such as better relationships with friends, family, and co-workers.

Another way is to become what some have called a "silent observer" of yourself. The idea is to move your point of view out of your head, and place it on your shoulder or the ceiling. Then watch yourself go about your business. Once you start keeping an eye on yourself, you may see things that are not helping you get yourself where you want to go. Once you see what is diverting you from your desired destination, it is a short step to self-transformation.

Thanks for listening. I'm happy to take questions or to discuss further any of the ideas I've presented today.