Through more than 40 years of service in the military, in higher education and with nonprofits, I've been privileged to work with and learn from superb leaders, from the young instructors who taught me how to fly airplanes for the U.S. Navy to the very smart group of corporate chief executive officers I met during a recent business trip to Asia.
These talented people have differed widely in their personality traits and life stories. Some have been charismatic, some very modest. Some came from poor backgrounds, others grew up amid great wealth. Some of them came by their leadership abilities naturally, and many others worked hard at developing them.
But all of these men and women have shared three critically important skills: They have been driven by an inspiring vision of success. They have excelled at communication. And they have exercised superior judgment.
To lead our organizations effectively through today's economic turmoil, we all will benefit if we master those very same skills.
Leadership success always starts with vision. Henry Ford dreamed of a car families could afford. Steve Jobs dreamed of an easy-to-use computer that would unleash creativity. Nelson Mandela dreamed of an integrated, prosperous South Africa.
These were heady ideas, and they attracted more than a few sneers. But they weren't the daydreams of lazy people with too much time on their hands. They were deep-seated passions, magnetic enough to capture the minds of just a few devoted followers at first but ultimately the imaginations of millions of women and men.
A compelling vision has that power. It inspires, clarifies and focuses the work of individuals--and preferably entire organizations--for a lengthy span of time. Before you embark on any leadership enterprise, stop and take a hard look at your vision of success. What is it? Do you even have one? Often, in the rush to get things done, to launch a new project or product, we ask people to get behind our efforts without ever really giving them a good reason why.
Your vision need not be as grandiose as Mandela's. It probably shouldn't be, unless you have Mandela's phenomenal array of talents and experience. If you do, I'd like to hear from you right away. It's fine to start with something smaller, like launching a new product line in your business, or publishing a book or instituting new technology to improve your customer service. Just pick something that matters, something that excites both you and your colleagues.
But even an incredibly compelling vision won't do much good if it remains only in your head. That brings us to the second key skill: communication. For busy leaders, there's always the temptation to keep your thoughts to yourself, often because there's so much other pressing work to do. Stopping to talk and listen can seem a waste of time. It's easy to cut off debate too early, especially in this economically trying moment.
Still, mustering the discipline and time to share strategies with your staff or talk directly with your clients is only half the fight. You still need to communicate effectively--and that means being your organization's chief listening officer. When key information needs to be shared, some leaders will simply send out a memo or give a speech (without leaving time for questions) and check "communication" off their list. Later on, they'll wonder why their customers don't like a product or why their men and women don't understand their new…