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On Leadership


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University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen.

© JR Ancheta

Leadership is a hot topic these days. People ask: What is it? Is it important? Why don’t we see more of it? Is it a gift, is it inherited, or can it be learned? What styles are most effective? Does business leadership translate to political leadership? How can I get better at it? Whatever the question, it’s clear that there is a massive interest in leadership.

Leadership books abound. Some are of the “how to” sort, from Machiavelli’s “The Prince” to the plethora of guides featuring (pick the number) immutable laws of leadership. Others are biographical, studies of great leaders through the ages from Moses to U.S. Grant to Martin Luther King, Jr. Still others are novels or plays showcasing leaders and their skills and capabilities, their triumphs and downfalls; Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar comes to mind. Finally, there are academic studies of leadership, focusing on the most effective types of leadership in certain historical, organizational, and cultural contexts. Plutarch, Max Weber, James MacGregor Burns, Ron Heifitz, and Lee Boleman are among the many great scholars who have focused on leadership.

Likewise, leadership development programs are ubiquitous. Among the most famous and effective are those provided by our military, but such programs also are offered in many of our schools and universities, churches, unions, scouting groups, sports teams, companies, and service clubs. Developed on the (correct, in my view) premise that leadership can be learned, these programs build leadership capabilities among members so they can more effectively carry out the missions of the organizations they lead.

I have had the great fortune to see and experience great leadership for many years. My father was an Army officer in command of combat units and my mother was a professional tennis player and coach. I interned for Leon Panetta in college and studied with renowned scholars in graduate school. I worked for superb leaders at the University of Alaska, Alaska Communications, and Doyon, Limited. And I have had many opportunities to lead, from basketball teams and labor negotiations to administrative organizations, statewide commissions, church councils, and now, the University of Alaska.

These leadership experiences have taught me a lot. Here are just a few lessons that may be of value to you.

  • Listening: As a negotiator, I learned to listen, so that I could understand not only what the other side wanted but more importantly what their underlying interests and concerns were. That way, even if I could not agree with a particular position coming across the table, I could fashion an alternative that met both their interests and mine. And as a leader, it is critically important to listen to your people, for at the end of the day, they are the ones who are going to deliver your organization’s mission.
  • Learning: It is critical for leaders to practice lifelong learning. Situations change, people come and go, unforeseen issues arise, and new technologies are developed. Plus, there’s usually a person or organization out there performing at a higher level than you. It makes sense to pay close attention to what they are doing so you can transfer some of that learning to your organization. Sources for learning certainly can include books and classes, but the best source by far is other people; people you lead and people who lead you.
  • Improving: Related to learning, improving means that you put that learning to use in getting better, in honestly assessing performance and putting in the serious effort to lead your people, serve your customers (students, in my case at the University of Alaska) more effectively, and leave your organization better when you leave than when you found it. You owe it to yourself and to the people you lead to continuously improve.
  • Believing: In order to lead, especially in tough times, you must believe in your mission and values. Your people will know if you don’t. They will see a hollow, weak leader. But they will see that if you believe, you have the drive, energy, confidence, and commitment that it takes to lead others well. They will see that you live up to your values and to those of your people. They see that you will sacrifice your own interests for those of the team’s. Among the most important values for leaders are loyalty, honesty, courage, humility, and selfless service to others.
  • Loving: Organizations are made up of people. And no matter how rational, strategic, technical, abstract, or complex the work, people are emotional beings who need to know that they are valued and cared for not just for the work they do, but for themselves. This requires that we connect with our people, understand their hopes and aspirations, know their concerns and fears, and give them the support and appreciation they need as people first, and only then as teachers, programmers, or engineers.
  • Inspiring: Leaders cannot just show up to work and leave on time. We cannot simply inform our people what’s going on. We cannot get by with the least effort possible. We cannot read PowerPoint slides or communicate with our people solely by email. Instead, as leaders, we need to engage with our people in a relationship of mutual respect and appreciation for the role each plays in success. We must be honest and transparent and speak from our hearts, as well as our brains. We must show that we have a vision and a passion for the organization. Only then people will follow.

 

Going forward

I began with a list of questions about leadership. These and other questions have interested and vexed people literally for thousands of years. There are no clear or easy answers. But we must not give up. The problems we face—racial tension, international terrorism, and economic insecurity for example—demand leadership. And despite all the books, classes, and promises of leadership, we need it now more than ever from leaders—like all of you—who truly listen, learn, improve, believe, love, and inspire.

 

 

This article first appeared in the September 2016 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.

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