The APS Leadership Institute is a committee with the stated goal of increasing and improving member participation in APS leadership. As such, in 2014 the committee developed a column on leadership in Phytopathology News. It is our hope that these columns provide tips to improve your leadership skills. This month's feature was contributed by Ray Martyn, current chair of the APS Foundation.
Ray D. Martyn, Purdue University, Rmartyn@purdue.edu
There is a plethora of books, seminars, and workshops available about leadership and what makes a good leader and many, no doubt, have made some authors very wealthy. I don’t pretend to know all of the things that go into good leadership, but what I do know about leadership is that it embodies an individual’s skill set and style. Style is perhaps influenced more by our personality (who doesn’t know about the Myers-Briggs assessment?), but skills can be learned. Only a very small number of people, if any at all, are “born” leaders. Most of us have to develop the necessary skills and good judgment over time to become good, effective leaders. Will Rogers said, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” Good leaders have, among other things, good judgment, but most probably developed that trait by “trial and error.” APS has long been concerned with identifying potential society leaders early in their careers and providing them with opportunities to hone their skills. The recently created Learning Institute within the society is a good example, as are the many opportunities graduate students and early career professionals have to participate in numerous APS committees and activities. The APS Foundation also has several funds that help assist with that process. I have had the honor and privilege of being in leadership roles within my universities, professional societies, and civic and community organizations and each has taught me valuable lessons. Some of those lessons were hard earned.
Leadership skills grow with experience. The College of Agriculture at Purdue University has an undergraduate leadership development certificate program that offers highly qualified and motivated students an opportunity to participate in a two-year program packed with academic, extracurricular, and community service requirements. When completed, students receive a leadership certificate that is amended to their diplomas. I had the pleasure of serving as a mentor for several of these students. As part of my initial interview with them, I asked them to jot down as many skills and attributes they thought good leaders possessed and which ones they thought they had. They listed many of the common traits: visionary, critical thinker, competent, trustworthy, multitasker, etc., and after some discussion and prodding, we had a combined list of more than 30 items. However, each thought they only had a couple of those traits and skills and wanted to develop more. This is the crux of good leadership—developing the critical skills you don’t have and improving upon the ones you do have. And that takes time and it takes making mistakes along the way. But, at the same time, one needs to be a quick learner and not repeat the same mistakes. There are many quotable quotes about leadership, but one I like is “experience is what enables us to recognize a mistake when we make it again.” A critical attribute common among good leaders is that they are not afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes are how we learn. This is a must and it comes from having confidence in yourself, your vision, and your team, be it an academic unit, company, or professional society. Those who never make mistakes don’t do very much. Having said that, however, good leaders openly admit mistakes, accept responsibility, and do not pass blame onto others, all the while striving to attain additional information to modify and improve their decisions.
If leadership could be summed up in one sentence it might be that leadership is about having a clear vision and empowering others to help achieve that vision. Leadership is about team building and inspiring people to take ownership and pride, while pursuing the bigger vision. Good leaders recognize each individual’s skills and assemble team members that complement each other. Leadership is not about how much credit you get but encouraging and recognizing those who help make it happen. Good leaders freely and frequently recognize and reward those they lead.
Good leaders see the big picture but understand they cannot do it all. They learn to delegate responsibility. This not only spreads out the workload, but helps instill a sense of ownership in the project and allows the leader to focus more on the leading rather than on the doing. Many of us, however, do not delegate well. Too often we use the excuse “it’s easier if I just do it myself.” While this sometimes may be the case, it typically is not good leadership. Good leaders have many things on their plate, and time management is crucial to getting projects completed. Delegation of responsibilities helps, but it is not the end all. A mistake often made by leaders is that they spend much of their time doing the easy stuff, while putting off the difficult stuff. This is akin to “stomping ants and letting the elephants run wild!” Good leaders accept the challenges of the difficult stuff and roll their sleeves up to get them done—on time and on budget.
Perhaps the hardest thing to grasp about leadership is strategic planning. Most of us are all too familiar with the chore of developing strategic plans. At least we think we are. Most universities, companies, and organizations require their units to develop five-year strategic plans, a task many people find both difficult and useless. But it should not be either one. A well-conceived strategic plan provides a road map to where you want to go, but before you make the road map, you need to know where it is you want to be! This comes from vision. Good leaders have vision. Vision is about knowing where you want the unit to be, what you want them to accomplish, or how you want others to perceive you. To paraphrase a scene from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, if you don’t know where you want to be, then it doesn’t matter which way you go.
A strategic plan begins with a shared vision and an understanding of what it will take to make that vision a reality. This requires anticipating challenges and obstacles likely to be encountered, as well as recognizing and seizing opportunities. It also entails a reasonable expectation of resources needed, both capital and human, as well as the support of higher administration. Few things get done if the big bosses don’t concur! Thus the vision needs to be shared by both the unit and those above the unit. The road map then becomes a plan that gets you to your vision and one that others can follow. There needs to be consensus and the belief that a “rising tide floats all boats.” If the unit gets better, everyone gets better by default.
Other attributes common to effective leaders are transparency and good communication. Secrecy is the Achilles’ heel of leadership. People do not trust what they do not know or understand, and people don’t follow those they do not trust. Mistrust often comes from a lack of information, or worse, misinformation. When people don’t have the information they make it up and perception becomes reality. To the extent possible, good leaders make their decisions based on facts that everyone is privy to so that they, too, would likely come to the same conclusion. Transparency is a must to gain respect and confidence and that comes largely from timely and accurate information. Nobody likes being kept in the dark and to do so only breeds contempt and mistrust.
Leadership is about getting those you lead to do the heavy lifting and that requires their respect and confidence in you as a leader. But if you are going to lead, you better turn around now and then to make sure someone is still following. Good leaders stay on top of the process until completed, following through with promises, commitments, and resources. Many strategic plans fail to accomplish their goals because of a lack of commitment and action and unrealistic metrics or timeframe. If it seems like an impossible mission to those who have to do the work, it will be. The Japanese proverb perhaps states it best: “Vision without action is a daydream and action without vision is a nightmare.”
In today’s world, things are changing rapidly and effective leaders anticipate and plan for change. To many, change is a dirty word. If you need confirmation of that, read Spencer Johnson’s “Who moved my cheese?” Change, however, is necessary to remain relevant and competitive, but change is all too often radical and abrupt. Effective leaders are good at managing change so that it appears evolutionary, not revolutionary. Change is much more palatable in small bites. Effective leaders clearly articulate what the changes are, why they are important or necessary, and how they will benefit those affected. If you do not remain relevant, you run the risk of becoming irrelevant.
Leaders have to make decisions, lots of decisions. Decisions should be made on the best available data, but seldom does one have all the data. Good leaders are decisive and timely, but not haphazard. That’s why they make the big bucks. “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!” may be a good battle cry to rally the troops around a cause, but if you lose all of your ships in the process, the only thing gained is a lot of second-guessing about your decisions and motives. Even seasoned leaders may find some insight and valuable advice in the book, The Bill Cook Story: Ready, Fire, Aim!, Bob Hammel’s biography of William Cook, founder of the global multi-billion-dollar Cook Group conglomerate. Some decisions are easy to make while others are more difficult and complex, often negatively impacting personnel or programs. These require deep thought and sole searching. Good leaders weigh the facts, give due diligence, and “pull the trigger.” Decision by indecision rarely accomplishes much and ultimately may deprive the unit of its success and give rise to a laissez-faire form of leadership, characterized by little guidance from the leader. This style of leadership typically leads to the lowest productivity among group members.
An often overlooked but important skill of good leaders is the art of negotiation. Leaders often have to negotiate both with those whom they lead as well as for those they lead. Getting consensus on contentious issues frequently requires a surgical precision of point-counter-point arguments and negotiations. Skillful negotiators are adept at pointing out the pros and cons of issues in non-threatening ways and why one way makes better sense than the other. Skilled negotiators use precision instruments, not blunt force.
One of the many definitions of “leader” in the dictionary is “a person who has commanding authority or influence.” While autocratic authority might work in the military, it seldom is an effective management style in business or academia. Leadership with authority is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. Don’t mistake getting people to do what you want by holding a stick over their heads as good leadership. When people’s jobs or livelihoods are at stake, they may begrudgingly do what they are told, but you can bet that it will not be their best work. Autocratic, demeaning, and callous leaders are seldom successful in the long term.
Good, effective leadership comes down to instilling trust and confidence in those you lead. Trust in that you will not only do things right, but that you also will do the right things! Trust has to be earned and, once gained, should not be taken for granted. Trust can quickly be lost. When I think about gaining someone’s trust the scenario of a cold, wet, and hungry dog wandering up to my doorstep comes to mind. The dog timidly stands a few feet away and desperately wants to eat and I desperately want to rush out to feed him, but that would be counter productive and create fear and mistrust. Instead, a slow, deliberate move, calm voice, and piece of meat in hand, may eventually gain the trust needed for him to approach. A gentle pat on the head and scratch of the ears seals the deal. People are not unlike this dog. Trust comes in small doses and is earned gradually; however, it can also vanish instantly if situations change for the worse. Good leaders instill trust in those whom they lead and, in return, earn their respect and loyalty.