Great Leadership Is About Helping Others

NOTE: Earlier this year I wrote a President’s Message for ASSE’s Professional Safety Journal. It received a good deal of positive feedback, so as we reach the end of the year and look to 2013 I thought I would share it with you here.

Do you remember Yogi Berra? For baseball fans like myself, we remember him as the great New York Yankee catcher. He was a 15 time All Star, won the American League MVP 3 times, played in 14 World Series and still holds many records some 50 years later. Beyond his baseball career, Yogi is best known for his off-the-wall statements. In researching quotes on leadership I came across one from Yogi. “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going because you might not get there.” As crazy as it may sound, there’s a great deal of wisdom in his words. I’ll come back to this later.

I love January and the winter season. To me it is a time of new beginnings and hope. Excitement is in the air with the start of a new year. There are feelings of optimism and opportunity. The old year is over and it’s time to refocus, recommit and put plans into action. Many of us make New Year resolutions, often with very good intentions of keeping them. Unfortunately, too many of us bite off more than we can chew and our resolutions often die a slow death. This year I am committing to becoming a better leader. In so doing, I’ve been reading and learning more about leaders.

Do you think of yourself as a leader? In studying about leadership, I found that most of us don’t see ourselves as the leader, but do have hope for our future and want to improve our abilities. This hope translates into optimism. Two thing great leaders have in common is they didn’t start out to lead anything and they exude optimism.

Some people believe that leaders are born that way and you can’t teach someone to be a leader. Either you have the ability or you don’t. I disagree. Granted some people have stronger personalities, greater confidence, or are at the right place at the right time to take on leadership roles. However, through my years of involvement with ASSE and in business most of the best leaders I’ve observed were just like you and me. We don’t start out to be in charge, but over time as we take on responsibility, get things done, help others and as trust builds we gain the knowledge and skills to lead. Others value our assistance and ask “which way next”.

According to the research of author John Maxwell and his books, there are “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” and “21 Indispensible Qualities of Leaders.” Above all, a leader must be able to influence others. Leaders need followers, so if you lack the ability to influence others you have no one to lead. He points out there are plenty of misconceptions and myths about leaders and leadership. In discussing the five common ones; the Management Myth, Entrepreneur Myth, Knowledge Myth, Pioneer Myth and the Position Myth, Maxwell points out that when all is said and done true leadership is influence. Contrary to what we see in business, leadership is not about position, but about the influence on others and their desire to move forward together and with you. Are you optimistic and hopeful about the future? Do you have the ability to create a vision, obtain followers and influence others to follow?

Though he probably never saw himself that way, my father was a leader. A high school teacher and football coach, he not only coached championship teams and is in the Wisconsin Coaches Hall of Fame, but worked to develop boys and girls into men and women. He did this through teaching the importance of strong character, hard work, responsibility, integrity and selflessness. He taught me that “a leader is the one who helps the most”. He was right!

So was Yogi Berra in the earlier quote. Leaders must have a vision and the ability to communicate and share it with others. Great leaders are optimistic and engender positive emotions among followers so they want to join together for a greater good. Thus the famous quote from Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

Other essential qualities for lasting leadership are respect, attitude, and the ability to engender positive emotion. Earned over time, respect involves putting the good of the people and organization ahead of any personal agenda. Attitude goes hand-in-hand with optimism. People who see life as a series of great opportunities and exciting challenges don’t want to be around or hear others who talk about how bad things are all the time. Lastly, you can’t move people to action unless you can move them with emotion.

Recently, I heard ASSE Past President Eddie Greer speak on leadership. “Leadership is about learning to do what is right, because we can never rise above the limitations of our character. If we are going to serve as leaders then we must have the trust of our followers. Character enables trust to exist and makes being a leader possible.” After all if a person isn’t trustworthy who will follow?

As I bring this blog post to a close, I hope you’ve enjoyed my sharing some thoughts about what I have been learning about leadership. In safety, we all can be more successful if we step forward as leaders. First, by educating and understanding what it takes to be a leader. Second, by putting it into practice. I hope you find my thoughts on leadership useful and a wonderful New Year in 2013.