Woman in military uniform climbing a rope and training to become a better leader

Be the Model They Need You to Be: Three Tips on Becoming a Better Leader

3 leadership qualities everyone can use to successfully lead a project, including examples: 

The great basketball coach, John Wooden, made it clear. “I believe there is no more powerful leadership tool,” he wrote, “than your own personal example.”

Leaders must model appropriate behaviors. That means leaders must demonstrate, through speech and action, how to best serve the organization and its mission.

Sometimes, being a leader means being an actor. Just as professional actors pretend to be someone else to play a role, leaders must often act and speak in ways that differ from their own personality and opinions. Leaders must act according to the needs of their role.

Leading is about serving a purpose outside yourself that, from time to time, may contradict your preferences and personal interests. However, the requirements of a leadership role should never conflict with your values.

You cannot lead in an organization that pursues a mission or requires behaviors and actions that contradict your personal values.

If you believe in the mission of the organization, then you can act as a leader within it. Sometimes you may disagree with policies and strategies that other leaders choose to adopt.

You might voice a contrary opinion behind closed doors, but before those you lead you must support those decisions.

You should smile and be gracious even when you otherwise disagree. No organization is perfect. Progress is always possible, however slow.

A good leader is a prudent leader that doesn’t naively tilt with windmills when their energy is better spent on supporting the mission.

A good leader knows when to challenge and when not, but to always represent the values and the mission of the organization.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, in his excellent book on leadership which he tongue-in-cheek entitled Leadership BS, claims that:

“In fact, being authentic is pretty much the opposite of what leaders must do. Leaders do not need to be true to themselves. Rather, leaders need to be true to what the situation and what those around them want and need from them. And often what others want and need is the reassurance that things will work out and the confidence that they are on the right track.” 1

In a poignant passage from David Garrow’s Pulitzer prize-winning biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., King tells of a moment where the burden of leadership became overwhelming and he called upon God to give him the strength to persevere:

“ . . . and I prayed out loud that night. I said, ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.’”

This quotation comes from a sermon delivered by Dr. King.

Did he actually make that prayer using exactly those words or is he portraying a role and moving his audience to steel their courage in the face of violence? Was it just rhetoric? Does it matter?

It’s clear that King did indeed demonstrate courage in the face of dangers and indignities, not only to himself but to his family. That’s a matter of fact. So, King both spoke and acted as a leader in the role he played.

Leaders must accept that the mission or purpose they serve is larger than them. It’s their duty to act the part that the mission requires.

Here are some tips on how to become a model leader.

  • Put on your uniform.

Put on your ‘uniform’ every morning before work.

Assuming the mantle of leadership should be an intentional act everyday so that you are better able to stay in your role as a leader and act the part.

The military uniform and the symbols affixed to it is a powerful reminder for any leader in military service.

What can you put on each morning that will function as an ever-present reminder of the role you should play?

Is it a hat, a ring, or a jacket?

Perhaps a memento you can carry in your pocket to touch frequently throughout the day to help you remember your commitment to modeling appropriate behaviors.

  • Mind your and others behavior.

Call out others for demonstrating appropriate behaviors and call out yourself for not demonstrating appropriate behaviors. But, never perform the reverse.

You should quietly demonstrate the right behavior but be transparent when you fail to do so yourself.

At the end of the day, stop and think about what you did wrong and what someone else did right to model appropriate behaviors. Share that with your team.

  • Publicly commit.

Make a commitment to an act or goal.

Do it publicly before your team and execute it.

Just as Cortez burned his ships upon landing in the new world so that his troops would be motivated to fight the Aztec empire, making public pronouncements backs you into a corner.

You will have to model the appropriate behaviors to succeed or submit to your failure, learn from it, and move on.

  1. Pfeffer, Jeffrey. Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time. (Harper Business, 2015) pg. 87.
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