Leadership: The Impossible Takes a Little Longer

By J. Michael Willard

Dr. Samuel Johnson — yes, that 18th Century literary chap — taught me my greatest lesson in leadership: “Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.”

The inscription was noted on a laminated card that was proof I had, indeed, graduated from a university and was setting out on a career, the direction of which I had only the foggiest idea.

However, I was armed with Dr. Johnson’s wisdom stuck securely in a pocket of my billfold. I carried it for years until it became so frayed I had to rely on my memory to recall.

As it happened, the career direction was serpentine. The scope was worldly, from the hills of West Virginia to the Great Wall of China, from palavering with rebel leaders in Central America to interviewing clod-kicking country music stars in Nashville. Along the way, I participated in politics, published magazines, and helped bring market reform to Eastern Europe as an entrepreneur.

Throughout, Uncle Sam (as in Dr. Samuel Johnson) has been my talisman. So, his quotation I list as my №1 principle of leadership. There are a few others I would like to share:


Leadership cannot be granted or assumed as if it were a title of nobility. This mantle must be given. To be given, it must be earned day-to-day, moment to moment.


Leadership is contagious. In organizations, the strength at the top can be measured by the performance of stellar subordinates. Good leaders reap what they sow.


A Leader is an Optimist. I don’t think a pessimist can make a good leader simply because leaders are born salespeople, whether they’re selling a product, a service — or themselves.


A Leader Pushes Down Responsibility. It’s the job of a leader to recognize other people’s great ideas, give those ideas visibility within the organization, and reward individual and group accomplishments. It’s called the ancient principle of subsidiarity.


A leader has to ask, “why not?” more often than “why?” This is rather fundamental. It speaks to entrepreneurship, calculated risk, adventure, trusting others, and, eventually, success.


A Leader Believes in himself A leader believes in his abilities, though not to the point of arrogance. If that line is crossed, there won’t be many followers.

No 8.

Leadership is Trust. No matter how you cut it, leadership always comes back to the word trust, whether it is leading employees or leading a new business pitch. You want the suits on the other side of the table to say, “These folks had good ideas — but most of all, I trust them.”


A real leader can lead in a crisis. He remains calm. He makes clear-headed decisions that help to still the waters. He can clearly and forcefully communicate with each of the company’s audiences.


Leadership is learning. Learning is not something that stops once you get to the executive suite. It is continually asking: “How can I do better?” A one-dimensional leader lacks the necessary brain inputs to develop a strategy based on historical truths and future vision.

In other words, a leader should be sufficiently well-rounded to grasp the obvious around him and to apply it to problems, issues, and opportunities that are sure to come.

I have had the opportunity to lead successful teams during multiple careers and management opportunities. When it comes down to it, the person I give most credit is my Uncle Sam.

(Photo: With the late Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd on the US Capitol Building grounds.)

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