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< Gen. Smith 1
Learning to Lead, Part I
By MajGen Perry M. Smith, USAF (Ret.)
The following article was originally published in
the Marine Corps Gazette
in January 1997. Reprinted with the kind permission of the author.
Section 1 of 2
Successful leaders don't need rows of sharp teeth to swim with the
sharks. Here are 30 common sense, often-forgotten tips for good
In speaking to large audiences on leadership, I am often asked to do
the impossible. In less than an hour's time, I am expected to motivate
them to improve their skills, inspire them to be better leaders, and to
acquaint them with the new technologies and concepts.
To cover all these points in the time allotted, I have come up with "30
Blazing Flashes Of The Obvious" about leadership. Here they are:
1. Know Yourself
All leaders should realize they are, in fact, five or more people. They
are who they are, and who they think they are, (and these are never the
same); they are who their bosses think they are; and who their
subordinates think they are.
Leaders who work hard to get feedback from many sources are more likely to
understand and control their various selves, and hence be better leaders.
2. Develop Mental Toughness
Leaders must be brutally honest with themselves or they will slip into
the terrible habit of self-deception. Even the best leaders make mistakes.
By smoking out these mistakes and correcting them quickly, a good leader
can become a superb one.
3. Be Magnanimous
Leaders who share their power and their time can accomplish
extraordinary things. The best leaders understand that leadership is the
liberation of talent; hence they gain power not only by constantly giving
it away, but also by not grabbing it back.
4. Squint With Your Ears
The most important skill for leaders is listening. Introverts have a great
edge, since they tend to listen quietly and usually don't suffer from
being an "interruptaholic." Leaders should "squint with their ears." Too
many bosses are thinking about what they will say next, rather than
hearing what is being said now.
5. Trust Your Instinct and Your Impulse
If something smells bad, sounds funny, or causes you to lose sleep at
night, take another look. Your instincts combined with your experience can
prevent you and your organization from walking off the cliff.
6. Learn By Failure
In my professional career, I have learned much more from my failures than
from my successes. As a result, I have become tolerant of the honest
failure of others. When a major setback comes along, try to treat it as a
marvelous learning experience, for most certainly it will be just that.
7. Protect Innovators
For three years I had a Medal of Honor recipient from Vietnam, Army Col. Jack
Jacobs, working for me. He is by far the most innovative person I have
ever known. Well over 50 percent of his ideas were awful, but buried among
these bad ideas was an occasional pearl of great wisdom. I learned that I
had to protect Jack and my organization from his bad ideas while
encouraging him to present all his ideas, so we could use his great ones.
8. Beware of Certainty
Leaders should be a bit skeptical of anyone who is totally certain about
his or her position. All leaders should have a decent doubt especially
when dealing with "true believers" who are always sure they are right.
9. Be Decisive
Top leaders usually must make prudent decisions when they only have about
60 percent of the information they need. Leaders who demand nearly all the
information are usually months or years late making decisions.
10. Don't Become Indispensable
Organizations need indispensable institutions not indispensable people.
Leaders should not allow themselves to become indispensable, nor should
they let any of their subordinates do so.
11. Avoid the Cowardice of Silence
During meetings, so-called leaders often sit on their hands when it is
time to raise a hand and speak up. Leadership requires courage - courage
to make waves, courage to take on our bosses when they are wrong, and the
courage of conviction. Every Robert E. Lee needs a James Longstreet to
tell him exactly the way it is.
12. Fight Against Paranoia
Welcome criticism, help people understand that it is OK to have "love
quarrels" with the organization. Loyalty and criticism are mutually
supporting while slavish loyalty is deadly. Avoid the defensive crouch.
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
13. Be Goal Oriented
Leaders, even at a lower level, must try to set some long-term goals for
their people and for their organization. People want to know where they
are going and in what order of priority.
14. Follow the Platinum Rule
The golden rule is marvelous. But in leadership situations, the platinum
rule may be even better: "Treat others the way they would like to be
15. Don't Waste People's Time
The best question a leader can ask a subordinate during a counseling
session is, "How am I wasting your time?" Not everyone will tell you, but
cherish the ones that do, for they will help you grow and prosper as a
The Marine Corps Gazette