#413  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 7          July 1999

Helpful Tips For Leaders at All Levels
by Perry M. Smith, Ph.D.

Dr. Smith is the President of Visionary Leadership of Augusta, Georgia. (phone

706-738-9133; e mail genpsmith@aol.com; members.aol.com/genpsmith). He retired from the Air Force as a major general and served as CNN's military analyst. He teaches leadership, ethics and strategic thinking to executives and middle managers, and is author of Rules and Tools for Leaders (Avery, Garden City Park, NY, 1998) and A Hero Among Heroes (Marine Corps Association, Quantico, VA, 1998).

I have the great privilege of teaching leadership to military schools, non-profit organizations, government organizations, and private and public corporations.  Here are a few of the tips which I share with these diverse groups. I call these tips my "Blazing Flashes of the Obvious" about leadership.

1.  Know Yourself

Each one of us is really five people. You are who you are, you are who you think you are, you are who your subordinates think you are, you are who your peers think you are, and you are who your boss thinks you are.  Leaders who work hard to get feedback from many sources are more likely to understand and control their various selves and hence be better leaders.

2.  Developmental Toughness

Leaders must be brutally honest with themselves or they will slip into the terrible habit of self-deception. Even the best leaders make mistakes. By smoking out these mistakes, acknowledging them and correcting them quickly, a good leader can become a superb one. 

3.  Be Magnanimous

Leaders who share their power and their time can accomplish extraordinary things. The best leaders understand that leadership is the liberation of talent; hence they gain power not only by constantly giving it away, but also by not grabbing it back. 

4.  Squint With Your Ears

Listening is the most important skill for leaders. Introverts have a great edge, since they tend to listen quietly and usually don't suffer from being an "interruptaholic." Too many extroverts are thinking about what they will say next, rather than hearing what is being said now. This is called, "fake listening" which is so nicely covered in Kevin J. Murphyís book, Effective Listening, which I recommend to leaders who are extroverts.  

5.  Protect the Innovators

For three years, I had working for me a Medal of Honor recipient who is the most innovative person I have ever known. Although well over 50 percent of his ideas were awful, buried among the bad ones was an occasional pearl of great wisdom. I learned to protect Jack from his bad ideas while encouraging creativity so we could use his best suggestions and insights.

6.  Donít Become Indispensable 

We need indispensable organizations, but not indispensable people. Leaders should not allow themselves, nor a staff member, to become the only individual who can perform a necessary task. When that indispensable person gets sick, retires, or gets transferred, the organization is sure to suffer. 

7.  Avoid the Cowardice of Silence

During meetings, so-called leaders often sit on their hands when itís time to speak up. Leadership requires courage--courage to make waves, courage to take on bosses when they are wrong, and the courage of convictions.

8.  Donít Waste Peopleís Time

The best question a leader can ask a subordinate during a counseling session is, "How am I wasting your time?" Not everyone will tell you, but cherish the ones who do, for they will help you keep your priorities in order and dramatically increase the value of your own, and their, time. 

9.  Observe, Thank and Reward the Invisible People 

There are lots of fine people doing great work who seldom get thanked because they are "invisible." They work so quietly and so competently that they often are not noticed by the leader. Over time their morale suffers because they are not recognized. Conversely, beware of those who try to get a great deal of "face time" with the boss. These folks are often primarily concerned with serving their ambitions or their egos.

10.  Avoid the Lurk of Cronyism

Too many bosses push people into higher positions because of friendship rather than competence. This not only undermines morale, but also moves people into positions where they reach their level of incompetence. Everyone suffers.    

11.  Smoke Those of Low Integrity

Leaders must sniff the air constantly to ensure high standards of integrity are maintained. In almost all large organizations, someone is walking out the back door with something. Expense accounts, personnel records, training reports, travel requests and contracts need regular scrutiny. Also, beware of the "integrity-once-removed" problem. Just because you are honest doesn't mean there aren't integrity problems within your staff. 

12.  Concentrate on Performance, Not Just Results

How you get results is vitally important. Leaders who don't concern themselves with both process and performance are making a big mistake. Constantly ask yourself what it took to get those great results. 

13.  Maintain a Sense of Outrage

There are too many super-cool managers who constantly worry about keeping the boss happy or staying out of trouble. As a result, they never allow themselves to be outraged when the system is doing serious damage to those who work for them. The best leaders get mad occasionally and, using controlled outrage, correct the wrongs that are being levied on their people. When CNN ran the nerve gas special in the summer of 1998, I used my sense of outrage (and my resignation in protest) to help the senior executives at Time Warner realize they had made a major mistake.

14.  Beware of Intimidation

Be very careful here. Some bosses allow themselves to be intimated by their bosses, or by outsiders and, on occasion, even by their subordinates. An intimidated boss can never be a great leader.

15.  Avoid the Activity Trap

The overly busy manager seldom plans for the long term. This usually leads to strategic drift. The micromanager and the workaholic are seldom visionary leaders. Busy bodies make for "in-the-box" managers, not enlightened leaders  

16.  Anticipate Crises

The very best executives are brilliant at seeing problems coming, and solving them before they turn into full-fledged crises. The best leaders learn how to "look around corners" by asking the right questions and perfecting their anticipation skills.  If a crisis does come, be a good crisis manager by having a transition plan, making decisions quickly, and forming an "opportunity team" to take advantage of the crisis.   

17.  Do Some Serious Reading on Leadership 

All leaders should be reading at least one good book per month. My favorites on leadership are: Killer Angels by Shaara, Leaders by Bennis, Integrity by Carter, The New Realities by Drucker,  Leadership is an Art by Depree, and The Microsoft Way by Stross. Leaders who are not readers are slowly but surely losing their potential value--it is sad to watch, especially if the person who is not staying intellectually active is your boss. 

18.  Donít Become a Prisoner of Your Own Paradigm

When I was acting as CNN's military analyst during the Gulf War of 1991, I was surprised when I noticed that The New York Times was unable to grasp how dramatically both weapons and warfare, as used and conducted by the coalition of allied forces, had changed. For more than twenty years, the Times had criticized the military services for buying systems that were overly complex and likely to break down quickly in combat. It took weeks before the editors finally grasped the conceptual and technological significance of the new triple paradigm of reliability, precision, and stealth.   

19.  Donít Send Out ďI Donít Trust YouĒ Messages

Leaders who say,  "I never want to be surprised" or "Before you start anything check with me" or  "When I am on the road, I will call in every morning for an update," are guilty of sending out ďI don't trust youĒ messages to their associates. Employees who realize they are not trusted will never contribute at their full potential.    

20.  Find an Anchor and Hold Onto it During Both the Good and Tough Times

Iíve been blessed with a number of wonderful anchors. My wife has lifted me up when I am down and eased me down when I was sky high and my ego became inflated.  My two adult children have also been very helpful, especially when I was dealing with issues of integrity. Other close friends have helped many times when I was in great need of advice, comfort, solace or support. 

21.  Donít Sweat the Small Stuff

This short phrase has a powerful meaning. It is even more powerful in its more complete form. "Don't sweat the small stuff.  Most everything is small stuff." I am constantly amazed by people who fail to enjoy themselves because some little thing is not quite right.  Leaders who are perfectionists should remind themselves that often "the perfect is the enemy of the good."

22.  Fight the Natural Tendency to Clone Yourself              

Although it is very common, itís a terrible mistake to hire people who look, act and think like you do. Every time you are about to make a decision to hire someone, be tough with yourself. Is this person attractive to you because he or she brings a fresh background, perspective or point of view? If not, keep looking. Also, after you hire someone, actively resist the tendency to encourage that person to act and be like you. 

23.  Constantly Look for Leverage Opportunities

The best leaders leverage their time, their talent, their technology, their integrity and their friends. In fact, if you think in terms of leverage, many things you do will be easier and quicker than ever before. Let me give some examples:

ē  I am a terrible typist. I didn't learn how to deal with a keyboard until I was 51 years old. So I bought a fast computer with an excellent spell checker and leveraged technology to overcome my weakness.

ē  I have a braintrust of many friends who give me great help when I am struggling with a problem and need assistance.

ē  As far as leveraging a talent, I am very fortunate in that I learned to be a speed reader when I was in graduate school. Also, I love to read--reading isnít a burden, itís a joy.  As a result, I read about 100 books a year and keep up with twelve magazines each week. By leveraging my talent for fast reading, I can absorb a great deal of written information in a short time.

24.  Get Ready For the Future

The future is coming fast. Leaders need to plan for the future and prepare their associates for it. Attend meetings and read books and magazines that focus on future-oriented subjects.

Remember that leadership is not maintaining control, seeking power, keeping the boss happy, staying out of trouble, or getting to the bottom of your in-box.  Leadership is serving the mission, serving your people, giving power away, allowing yourself to be vulnerable and raising the level of integrity and dignity in your organization.

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