Are people “born leaders” or can it be developed?
My observation is that leadership comes from upbringing, mentoring influences, and the demands of exigent circumstances. Historians have wondered if Presidents Washington, Lincoln, and F.D. Roosevelt would have gained such reputation and stature had they not faced extreme challenges and overcome them. Personal characteristics such as self-confidence, ability to maintain focus, and high social aptitude – among qualities that can often be found in leaders – are very likely developed from infancy.
What are the most important leadership lessons you’ve learned?
Lead by example. One cannot be perceived as shirking workload or acting unethically and at the same time motivate others to assume heavy work burdens and uphold the highest ethical standards. When one’s organization is criticized for its work product, a leader should accept full responsibility, demonstrating pride and commitment in the entire workforce, and thereby motivating them to strive for better results. When wrongdoing is found within an organization, the leader must act swiftly to introduce a fair and just process to assure that no one is wrongly blamed, due process is followed, and the full workforce is positively counseled and reminded, by the leader, of the laws, rules and standards that all must uphold.
How has your leadership style evolved?
My learning has been shaped by a series of leadership roles in student government, running a graduate school journal, and being a ‘boss’ at a young age in a partnership with younger employees. I have participated in two different kinds of partnerships – one a creative enterprise, the other a business – in which I learned ways to persuade peers without having any advantage of rank. In government and out of government, I have held a succession of leadership positions where I have become increasingly comfortable with the role expected of me, to help set agendas, run meetings productively, and execute the business of the organization in a manner that would withstand close scrutiny for propriety and productivity. In today’s world of individual empowerment, the leadership style most likely to be productive, at least in the civilian world which is my only frame of reference as a non-veteran, is one setting a collaborative, mutually respectful tone rather than an authoritarian or coercive tone.
What leadership concepts do you consider during your day-to-day?
The job of a leader is to help engineer the organization’s output, so on a day-to-day basis, “job one” is seeing to it that the job gets done. Related to that is an ongoing consideration of how to address possible weaknesses in the organization, including staffing issues, productivity, or the need to increase outside knowledge of and support for the organization. All of these require motivating others, and part of that is to demonstrate one’s own commitment and contribution to the effort, as one way of spurring others to respond to the leader’s call to action.
What are the most important ideas a burgeoning leader ought to consider?
Picking up on the wording of that question, the “most important ideas” may in fact be ones generated by people other than the leader. We sometimes hear that a leader likes to be ‘the smartest person in the room’ or be the one to produce ‘the answer’ to problems being considered. This is a telltale sign of weakness in a leader. A strong leader not only has no fear of highly intelligent and innovative subordinates, but should actively seek out skillful analysts, experienced operators and creative problem-solvers to share in the burdens of setting a course of action. I worked for Vice President Dan Quayle, and admired the way he would bring in top policy officials and let them air their disagreements on key issues, vigorously debating right in front of him for 5-10 minutes, giving him a rich understanding of various options and their merits; we only knew which arguments had persuaded the Vice President when he later sat down in official meetings and stated his views.
What leadership skills or competencies do you look for when hiring?
Like any boss, I look for an intellectual and emotional steadiness in someone with whom I and others will need to be working day to day. Job applicants tend to be on their best behavior, signaling reliability and willingness to take direction. Beyond that, however, I look for intelligent self-confidence, meaning one who will think for himself or herself, even while operating within the constraints and discipline of the organization. For more senior positions, I learned from Colin Powell that the most important characteristic is not necessarily an exquisite knowledge of every detail of the organization’s work; any smart person can learn that. General Powell’s main criterion can be described by the question, ‘If I give responsibility for running this organization and managing all its issues to this person, can I walk in the other direction knowing that he/she can handle the task well?’ In the end, while a good understanding of the organization’s work is important, general qualities of competence, character, and yes, ‘leadership,’ can be the true keys to success in an organization.
Ambassador Lincoln P. Bloomfield, Jr. (Harvard, a.b, cum laude, Government, 1974; Fletcher School, M.A.L.D., 1980) is Chairman of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, DC. He was the President’s Special Envoy for MANPADS Threat Reduction from 2008-2009, and Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs, as well as Special Representative for the President and Secretary of State for Humanitarian Mine Action from 2001-2005.