Leadership Lessons from West Point by Harry Truman

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Leadership Lessons from West Point

Disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who take disciplined action: this framework captures much of what separates greatness from mediocrity. The Army has long embraced this concept with its own framework of leadership: Be-Know-Do. This framework runs through these chapters, like a thread of DNA.

The beauty of this book lies in the dualities of leadership—knowing when to follow and when to not follow, the responsibility to question and the responsibility to execute, dedication to mission first and dedication to your comrades above all. These dualities highlight the point that disciplined action does not mean rote action. Disciplined action means that you begin with a framework of core values (be), you meld those values with knowledge and insight (know), and finally you make situation-specific decisions to act (do).  Leadership, the chapters in this book teach, begins not with what you do, but who you are.

West Point answers the question “Can leadership be learned?” with the idea that whether you like it or not, you are a leader. The real question is whether you will be an effective leader. In reading this book, I realized that West Point also addresses a question that I’ve been wrestling with: Can Level 5 Leadership be developed? In our research into why some companies become great while others do not, my colleagues and I observed that leadership capabilities follow a five-level hierarchy, with Level 5 at the top. At Level 1, you are a highly capable individual. At Level 2, you become a contributing team member. At Level 3, you become a competent manager. At Level 4, you become an effective leader.

Stepping up to Level 5 requires a special blend of personal humility and professional will—the capacity to channel your personal ambitions and capabilities into a larger cause or mission. Level 5 leaders differ from Level 4 in that they are ambitious first and foremost for the cause, the organization, the mission, the nation, the work—not themselves—and theyhave the will to do whatever it takes (within the bounds of the organization’s core values) to make good on that ambition.  These chapters show that West Point is in the business of developing not just leaders, but Level 5 leaders; the ideals of service, dedication to cause, loyalty to comrades, sacrifice, courage, and honor shine through these pages.

West Point answers the question “Can leadership be learned?” with the idea that whether you like it or not, you are a leader. The real question is whether you will be an effective leader. In reading this book, I realized that West Point also addresses a question that I’ve been wrestling with: Can Level 5 Leadership be developed? In our research into why some companies become great while others do not, my colleagues and I observed that leadership capabilities follow a five-level hierarchy, with Level 5 at the top. At Level 1, you are a highly capable individual. At Level 2, you become a contributing team member.

At Level 3, you become a competent manager. At Level 4, you become an effective leader. Stepping up to Level 5 requires a special blend of personal humility and professional will—the capacity to channel your personal ambitions and capabilities into a larger cause or mission. Level 5 leaders differ from Level 4 in that they are ambitious first and foremost for the cause, the organization, the mission, the nation, the work—not themselves—and theyhave the will to do whatever it takes (within the bounds of the organization’s core values) to make good on that ambition.  These chapters show that West Point is in the business of developing not just leaders, but Level 5 leaders; the ideals of service, dedication to cause, loyalty to comrades, sacrifice, courage, and honor shine through these pages.

Toward the end of my visit to West Point, I had the privilege of conducting a small seminar for soon-to-graduate cadets, invited by a few members of the faculty who penned some of these chapters. One senior cadet, who would almost certainly graduate to dangerous duty in the Middle East, said to me that he felt more fortunate than his friends who had gone to places like Harvard and Stanford. “No matter how the rest of my life unfolds,” he explained, “I know that I have served a larger cause than myself.” Earlier that day, a senior general officer commented that this current generation of West Point graduates stands as one of the most inspired—and inspiring—since the graduating class of 1945.

For two decades, we lived in a world of artificial stability, made possible by America’s triumph in the Cold War, combined with an era of perverted prosperity culminating in the stock market bubble of the late 1990s. My generation had no larger cause, no overriding ethos of service, no great object that extracted our sacrifice. And we are poorer for it. The West Point leaders who introduced me to these inspired cadets, and who write so passionately in this book about the principles of courage, sacrifice and commitment, helped me to see that this younger generation of idealistic men and women deserve not to be just students of their elders but—equally—our teachers.

Hesselbein on Leadership

Harry Truman once defined leadership as the art of getting people to do what they might not otherwise do, and to like it.

That quotation comes to mind whenever I get a call from Frances Hesselbein. The phone rings, I pick up, and I hear Frances on the other end of the line. “Jim, I was hoping that you might consider . . . ” Or, “The foundation would so value . . . ” Or, “It would be wonderful if you would think about . . . ” And before I even hear the end of the sentence, I know that I will very likely say yes. I also know that I’m going to like it.

I’m not the only person who has this experience. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to present at the Drucker Foundation annual conference, held in Los Angeles. The evening before the main event, I attended a reception. As I moved around the room full of remarkable people—thinkers, authors, corporate executives, directors of non-profits, government leaders—I asked, “What brings you here?” The answers invariably circled back to Frances Hesselbein. Later, at the reception dinner, Peter Drucker quipped that he made a practice of doing pretty much whatever Frances asks. Like Drucker, nearly all those in the room had reached a point of being masters of their own lives. Yet when Frances calls, they all have a great propensity to say yes, and to like it.

Hesselbein came into her responsibility as a consummate insider. With twenty-five years of experience, first as a volunteer troop leader and later as a local council executive director and national board member, she disproves the myth that change leaders must be larger-than-life heroes who ride in from the outside on a white horse. Dyed in green (the color of the Girl Scouts), Hesselbein vowed to defend the timeless core values of the Girl Scouts and recommitted the organization to its enduring mission of helping girls reach their highest potential. Beyond that, however, everything else would be open for change.

And change she wrought. Hesselbein believed that any girl in America—be she low income or wealthy, urban or rural, black, white, Latina or whatever—should be able to picture herself in the Girl Scouts. “If I’m a Navajo child on a reservation, a newly arrived Vietnamese child, or a young girl in rural Appalachia, I have to be able to open [the Girl Scout handbook] and find myself there,” she said. “That’s a very powerful message that ‘I’m not an outsider. I’m part of something big.'” The Girl Scouts not only changed materials like the Girl Scout handbooks (even translating them into multiple languages)  but also initiated a slew of new offerings.

Proficiency badges sprouted up in topics like math, technology and computer science, to reinforce the fact that girls are—and should think of themselves as—smart, capable individuals. The organization artfully moved people to confront the brutal facts facing girls in modern America, such as teen pregnancy and alcohol use among minors, by creating materials on sensitive issues. The parent organization did not force these materials down people’s throats, but simply gave the interdependent councils the opportunity to use the materials at their discretion. Most did.

Hesselbein grasped a central paradox of change: the organizations that best adapt to a changing world first and foremost know what should not change. They have a fixed anchor of guiding principles around which they can more easily change everything else. They know the difference between what is truly sacred and what is not, between what should never change and what should be always open for change, between “what we stand for” and “how we do things.”

Had she marched in with a big “change program,” full of herself as the great change leader, her efforts likely would have failed. Instead, she began with a rededication to the guiding values and enduring mission of the Girl Scouts as the framework for change, giving people an anchor point of stability. Yes, there would be change, but it would all be done in the spirit of reinvigorating the soul of the institution, not destroying it.

Hesselbein understood that to “do good” does not mean doing all good. To deliver the best results—and, as she continually reminds us in these essays, it is imperative to think in terms of results—requires the discipline to focus only on those activities that meet three basic tests. First, the opportunity must fit squarely in the middle of the mission. Second, the enterprise must have the capability to execute on the opportunity better than any other organization.

(If not, then leave the opportunity to others.) And third, the opportunity must make sense within the context of the economic engine and resources of the institution. Hesselbein pounded out a simple mantra: “We are here for only one reason: to help a girl reach her highest potential.” She steadfastly steered the Girl Scouts into those activities—and only those activities—where it could make a unique and significant contribution of value to its members. And throughout, she bolstered the financial health of the Girl Scouts, mindful of Peter Drucker’s adage that the foundation for doing good is doing well.

And, indeed, the results came. Not just financial—for that is not the point in a mission-driven enterprise—but equally in terms of membership, volunteer dedication, and the enduring impact on the lives of girls. Under her leadership, the Girl Scouts regained its preeminent position, with a girl membership of 2.25 million and a workforce (mainly volunteers) of 780,000. Equally important, the organization had attained greater diversity and cohesion than at any time in its history—each side of the coin reinforcing the other, in a powerful yin and yang combination. Finally, she set up the organization to be successful long into the future, beyond her tenure. Today, in 2002, the Girl Scouts of the USA has grown to nearly four million members, including nearly one million adult member volunteers.

The Death of the Charismatic Leader (And the Birth of an Architect)

Almost by definition, an enduring great company has to be built not to depend on an individual leader, because individuals die or retire or move on. What’s more, when a company’s identity can’t be separated from the identity of its leader, it can’t be known for what it stand for. Which means it sacrifices the potency of being guided by its core purpose.

So the charismatic-leader model has to die. What do you replace it with? The task that the CEO is uniquely positioned to do: designing the mechanisms that reinforce and give life to the company’s core purpose and stimulate the company to change.

Building mechanisms is one of the CEO’s most powerful but least understood and most rarely employed tools. Along with figuring out what the company stands for and pushing it to understand what it’s really good at, building mechanisms is the CEO’s role—the leader as architect.

The old role is still seductive, though. Past models have glorified the individual leader, especially when he or she was an entrepreneur. And charismatic-style CEOs understandably find it hard to let go of the buzz that comes from having an intense, direct personal influence. But a charismatic leader is not an asset; it’s a liability companies have to recover from. A company’s long-term health requires a leader who can infuse the company with its own sense of purpose, instead of his or hers, and who can translate that purpose into action through mechanisms, not force of personality.

However hard the transition to architect might be, there are three issues, affecting every CEO, that encourage it—and eventually may even force it. One: time for creativity. Two: time span. And three: scale.

First, let’s discuss creativity. As personally energizing as it is to have an effect on an employee and to touch his or her life, it’s so energy absorbing that you’re never left with enough time or spirit for real creative reflection or real creative work. Which is what mechanism building should be. The absence of that time is one great source of burnout.

The second concern is time span. Clearly, building a mechanism will have a much longer-lasting effect than leading by virtue of your presence. A mechanism doesn’t depend upon you. If a truck hits you tomorrow, the mechanism will still be there.

The last concern, scale, is the most crucial. You can’t build something really big just on charisma alone. At some point the scale is too great; you can’t reach that many people. If you want something to really grow over time, you’ve got to build mechanisms that can touch everybody every day. What you get in the end is more reach, more power, the ability to affect more people. It’s a leverage game.