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Leadership: The right stuff


“If there is one central truth to be collected from the history of all ages, it is this: that the people’s rights and liberties, and the democratical (sic) mixture in a constitution, can never be preserved without a strong executive.”

--John Adams (from “John Adams” by David McCullough) speaking about the office of the president

And so it is with business.

A friend just called and we spoke about an executive we knew who was loved by his troops and customers, but he failed. He was a weak leader.

Strong executives may be collaborative, but they’re decisive. They may be kind, but they don’t avoid tough decisions. They likely understand and support pushing decisions to the lowest effective level, but they insist on great execution at that level. They don’t need to control all the details, but they insist on high performance.

I’ve had the great fortune of working with numerous strong executives and some weak ones. Weak executives foster weak organizations, but strong executives don’t necessarily foster strong organizations. Strength — that is, power, decisiveness, forcefulness, fearlessness and confidence — isn’t enough, but it’s a darn good start. Couple strength with passion, intelligence — though brilliance isn’t required — and emotional intellect, and you have the building blocks of successful leadership. Without these latter traits, a strong leader simply becomes a tyrant.

I’ve seen emotionally intelligent, passionate and intellectually capable people in senior leadership roles crumble because they weren’t strong enough. Strong enough to stand up to their board when asked to do ridiculous things, strong enough to fire people who needed to be fired, strong enough to not need everyone to love them, strong enough to say “follow me” in a way people respond to.

We all know and love numerous people who are indecisive, lack force and confidence, and have many fears. It’s unlikely, however, that those people are successful in executive roles. They may be brilliant artists, designers, engineers, scientists, caregivers or teachers, but they shouldn’t be in leadership roles.

Both my wife and I lost our fathers at an extremely young age. Our mothers were wonderful and kind people but probably not innately “strong” as I’ve described it here. However, raising a family and figuring out how to pay the bills in the 1960s as a widow made them strong. Strength can be acquired, but not cheaply.

I believe leadership can be taught, but it’s much easier to start with the right raw materials.

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Todd Ordal

Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy LLC. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He speaks, writes, consults and advises on issues of strategy and leadership. Todd is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Follow Todd on Twitter here. You can also find Todd at http://www.appliedstrategy.info,  303-527-0417 or todd@appliedstrategy.info

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