Despite complicated theories to learn and innumerable tactics to follow, successful leadership comes down to few simple principles.
The NFL Combine has become a big deal for the teams of the National Football League and for college players who hope to “play on Sunday.” Representatives from all the teams and the top college players gather every February in Indianapolis for a week-long event intended to both identify and demonstrate the ability of these young players to perform effectively in the National Football League. In a battery of 10 specific tests, these hopeful future NFL stars are assessed and measured, both physically and mentally, against the standards of physical ability and performance set by those who have been successful in the league. The assumption is that if these young players exhibit the same level of performance traits as do established players, then there is a greater likelihood of success in the league.
If the average speed in the 40-yard dash for a starting linebacker in the NFL is 4.5 seconds, and a hopeful linebacker’s best time at the Combine is 4.9 seconds, the chances for him to be a high-round draft pick declines. If the average starting quarterback in the NFL scores a 24 (out of a possible 50) on the Wonderlic test, and the prospective quarterback draftee scores 9, teams are going to discount this person’s ability to master the complexities of the position. (It is interesting to note that the position with the highest average score on the Wonderlic – 26 – is that of offensive tackle. Here’s a sample test. See if you’re any smarter)
The Combine is not a perfect predictor of success in the NFL, but it does identify the physical and mental traits that are consistent with those who have played in the league. More than anything the Combine, with rare exceptions, identifies those who lack the attributes of success and are most likely to fail in the NFL.
Testing for Business Leadership
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a “National Leadership League Combine?” At this “Leadership Combine” wannabe leaders could measure themselves against the key traits, standards, techniques and levels of performance established by those recognized as successful leaders. Actually, those who seek to become successful leaders could set up their own combine, because a repository of such valuable insight on effective leadership already exists. It is available to everyone and is the best way to understand, develop and use the skills needed to become an all-pro leader.
The playbook for the “Leadership Combine” is called history. By studying the way others faced and conquered the challenges of leadership, it is possible to identify certain traits that are consistently exhibited by those with a track record of successful leadership. Like the NFL Combine, the leadership combine cannot predict who will be successful as a leader, but it can clearly identify the performance attributes of those who have been effective as leaders. What’s interesting is that this identifiable leadership skill-set applies to all levels of leadership. Leadership is leadership and the characteristics that have shown to be drivers of success are a solid predictor of leadership potential, from the lowest to the highest levels in business, government and society itself.
If you had the time to research (I did it for you) and line up (or Google) the entire pantheon of great leaders, you would see that leaders and leadership come in all forms and varying backgrounds. At first glance it would be difficult to determine the whys and wherefores of successful leadership. Sure, some of them came from privileged, patrician backgrounds that conditioned them for leadership from childhood, but then again there were others who had none of these advantages, yet still became outstanding leaders.
Knowing the family history and background of Franklin D. Roosevelt, few would be surprised that he rose to be President of the United States. But what about the boy named Clinton, born in the backwater of a backwater state who never knew his father, raised by an alcoholic mother with questionable employment activity? Who could have suggested he would follow FRD into the Oval Office? Few were surprised that Winston Churchill, born of a politically prominent family in Great Britain and schooled for leadership, would one day rally his country from the despair of defeat and lead it to victory against the Nazis in World War II? On the other hand, few would have predicted that a poorly educated, gawky back-woodsman called Abe would be the one called upon to preserve the very existence of his country?
We could go on and on with such counter-intuitive examples of successful leadership, but it is not important to understand what it is that made these leaders different. What is important is to understand what made them similar. If one were to autopsy the background, teaching, experience and style of successful leaders – at any level – there would be a wide array of differences, but you would also discover certain traits that were relentlessly consistent and measurable in every single one of them. Once that is understood, it is possible to mimic and learn those consistent traits of success. This will not guarantee success as a leader, but it does offer the surest path to Superbowl success in any business.
Form your own Leadership Combine and test yourself against these traits of leadership.
Vision – Leaders have the ability to reminisce about the future the way others reminisce about the past. Leaders don’t wait for the future, nor do they try to predict it. Leaders have the capability to envisage the future in a way that can be clearly communicated and understood by others. This encourages others to join in the effort to create the future. Henry Ford had the vision of a car in every driveway. Bill Gates had the vision of a computer in every home. Fred Smith had the vision of national overnight package delivery. Everyone working for these leaders knew exactly what the vision of the future was and all they had to do was figure out how to get there. The “vision” is the stalwart building block of leadership.
Determination – Success does not come easy. There will always be trials, tribulations, resistance and even failure along the way. Successful leaders consistently exhibit the fortitude to take these setbacks in stride and never be deflected from their vision. Leaders may adjust their tactics, but they don’t waiver from their vision. They set the example for all that it is better to fail than to quit. Leaders understand that if a goal is not worth the risk of failure, it is not worth much. All successful leaders have the no-quit mentality expressed by Winston Churchill when he said, “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” It is seeing this dogged persistence of purpose on the part of the leader that encourages the followers to keep the faith and continue on.
Openness – Successful leaders know they don’t know it all. They exhibit the emotional maturity to willingly surround themselves with those who accept the vision, but, at the same time, are willing and encouraged to question and challenge the leader’s tactics and strategy. Strong leaders have the confidence to openly accept blame and admit errors. Successful leaders always try to surround themselves with those who are better than they are at doing what they want done. One of the best examples of this leadership trait was identified by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book on Lincoln “Team of Rivals.” Lincoln was so focused on the vision of saving the Union that he was willing to surround himself with bitter political rivals, because he knew their experience and talent was critical to achieving his goal.
Empowering – Winning leaders inherently understand that power used absolutely diminishes, while power shared absolutely expands. Remember, the objective is to achieve the vision, not consolidate power. If the leader wants the followers committed to the vision and willing to work to see it achieved, then it is critical for them to be empowered to do so. Leaders who have been successful understood that when power is shared within an organization, then the organization and the leader become geometrically more powerful. Power is shared in many ways: respect, transparent communication, the freedom to fail, recognition of accomplishment and sharing of the rewards of success. We all know that Bill Gates is a multi-billionaire, but do you think he would have become one of the richest men in the world if he had not empowered hundreds of others to help him achieve his vision and become multi-millionaires in their own right?
Ethical – It should go without saying that any level of leadership requires sound ethics. Nothing destroys the credibility of a leader in the eyes of followers faster than recognition of less-than-stellar ethics. It is a given that leaders must do what is required to be done, but the most effective leaders share the common trait of going beyond simply doing what is required. It is what could be called “ethical leadership.” The definition of ethical leadership is to not only do the right things that should be done, but doing the right things that can be done. In 1914 the average daily wage of a factory worker in America was $2.25 a day. It would have been “ethical” for Henry Ford to pay this amount, but instead, he offered his workers $5.00 a day. Ford understood that paying $5.00 a day would allow his company to attract and retain the best workers. And that would allow him to move closer to achieving his vision.
And the Moral of the Story …
The NFL Combine is an organized event intended to measure the physical and mental capabilities of the best college football players against the traits and performance of established NFL players in order to determine the potential chance of success for the draftees. It is not a perfect system and can’t guarantee success, but it does identify those most likely to succeed and those who will more likely fail.
Those who seek to become successful leaders can create their own “Leadership Combine.” By understanding the consistent traits exhibited by all successful leaders, they can measure their ability to develop those same traits and set standards for potential success. This will not guarantee success as a leader, but it does offer the best opportunity to develop into an all-pro leader.