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Leading by choice

I am a big fan of the cartoon strip Dilbert. The follies and foibles of its characters created by Scott Adams put a big target on soft underbelly of management: Lack of people skills.

In a recent couple of strips, the pointy-hair boss is seeking to improve himself by following advice dispensed by unseen leadership experts - one of whom is credible "because he used to have a job." [Touche, Scott Adams!] Of course the pointy-hair boss is doing it all for show. He has no intention of becoming a better boss; he simply wishes to impress others and make a show of his supposed leadership skills.

This lack of intention gets to the heart of why self-improvement efforts often fail. The true self does not wish to change, so improvement is not possible. This conclusion may be obvious to everyone except the person, who, like the pointy-hair boss, is simply going through the motions. You do not become a leader by reading a book or watching a video. You become a leader because you choose to become one.

Our military exemplifies how leadership should be taught as well as how it needs to be practiced. Every soldier is taught to assume the responsibilities of his rank; the higher the rank the greater the responsibility. And while there is classroom work focused on what it means to lead, passing the course does not ensure leadership. Leadership comes from the commitment to practice what you have been taught, but more relevantly to do what your fellow soldiers need you to do.

Truth be told, you do not need to attend a class or read a book to learn how to lead. Those may help you become a more effective leader but they do not make you a leader. Leadership is a personal choice; it is the commitment to service as well as the commitment to improvement. Managers lead by thinking about what their people need and providing them with it. Employees lead by putting forth good effort to do what they are asked to do. Inherent, I think, in both is initiative, the willingness to step up and do what is necessary to get the job done right.

Such examples do not make the headlines, but they make our lives better. Consider these examples: The customer service rep who takes a customer complaint and turns it into an opportunity to make things right for the customer; a purchasing manager who works with a vendor to get a good price but ensures that the vendor is paid on time; the manager who coaches his employees for improvement.

The choice to lead is a good one, but it must be personal. No one should make you lead, but circumstances may dictate it. By nature leadership is an aspiration, the commitment to making things better. Sometimes that is possible, but sometimes not. What matters is the willingness to help the organization succeed.

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