Popcorn Thoughts on Leadership

By J.Michael Willard

It is often thought — sometimes written — that leadership is bestowed, like a knighthood, by a higher power, or that it takes sharp elbows to jostle to the executive suite.

However, there are other routes, often down a dusty road less traveled.

You get there through happenstance and a whoops-a-daisy, gosh almighty, gee-whiz determination with hard work stirred in the pot. It’s the three yards and a cloud of dust philosophy.

Having mainly led just my own teams, advertising agencies in the US, Russia, Ukraine and Istanbul, I’m probably not the first source of advice for the uber ambitious — but perhaps the second choice. After all, those agencies were rather successful in risky markets so mercurial they would make your hair stand on end and cause the affable Mr. Rogers to swear like a sailor.

My first leadership position came from a fellow named Shorty, an Air Force enlisted man with minimal authority, outsized ego, and more than passing resemblance to the comic character Beetle Bailey.

It was Shorty who chose me to honcho a recreational grounds crew on an American airbase at age 17. I was, in large measure, out of my depth. That’s when I came upon the theory — more an enlightenment — that leadership must be earned.

It seems my team of high school mates never felt the obligation in the dead of summer to maintain ball fields and tennis courts for minimal pay when the teen club and the swimming pool beckoned. I was forever herding butterflies.

But, this kindergarten training was excellent for my next challenge, supervising bag boys at a supermarket. We’re not talking Fortune 500 duty here, merely coming gingerly out of the embryonic career chute.

The oft-quoted bluster “lead, follow or get out of the way” has been attributed to everyone from Thomas Paine, to Gen. George Patton to, most likely, Elvis. It’s a macho mantra that makes me wince.

But amazingly, in my view, the principles of leadership never really change as one moves up whatever imaginary ladder one chooses to climb to the stars or simply striving to be a good McDonald’s manager.

There is also a brand of leadership for those souls who prefer, as Mark Twain remarked, to sit on the curb and clap as the parade goes by. The world needs both, and I often prefer the latter, though family DNA pushes the try harder button.

The thoughts put forth are not in any particular order, and they don’t represent oracles. The wisdom is as common as kudzu weed in the South, though often the principles are ignored in business and politics.

As with the famous Ten Commandments, some are more relevant than others.

1. Leaders recognize that leadership cannot be granted or assumed. It must be given. To be given, it must be earned, most often day to day, even moment to moment.

2. Good leadership is contagious. Often in an organization, the strength at the top can also be measured by the performance of stellar and immediate subordinates. Good leaders reap what they sow.

3. A leader is an optimist. Leaders are born salespeople, whether they’re selling a product, a service — or themselves. A pessimistic salesman is an oxymoron.

4. A leader pushes down responsibility. I get a kick out of seeing other people do great things. That’s our mission as leaders, recognizing other people’s great ideas, and giving those ideas visibility. This is called the principle of subsidiarity,

5. A leader embraces challenges, asks “why not?” more often than “why?” This is rather fundamental. It speaks to calculated risk, adventure, trusting others and, eventually, success. Though, inevitably, there are hits and misses.

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

7. Leadership is trust. When the potential client is behind closed doors considering the various offers, you want the dialogue to begin as follows: “Those guys had good ideas. But, most of all, I trust them to deliver.”

8. Leadership is learning. A one-dimensional leader lacks the necessary brain inputs to develop strategy based on historical truths applied to futuristic vision.

9. A leader has the innate ability to sometimes see beyond the next bend in the road. If an opinion poll is considered a snapshot in time, then a leader’s GPS should be a step ahead of the trend line.

An old British friend from the 18th century, Dr. Samuel Johnson, once wrote: “Nothing will be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.”

I think every leader should tack Dr. Johnson’s words on his office wall. I keep it in my billfold. It’s been there since 1967.

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I am a novelist, painter, songwriter and essayist but my day job is elevating the profile of authors, entertainers and business executives.

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