Being put in a leadership role can be something you strive for, but it can also be something that is thrusted upon you. Often, the people I find to be the best leaders are the ones that aren’t seeking it for their own gain; instead, the best leaders accept the responsibility because they realize it’s necessary.
I’ve found that the best way to be a good leader is to have followed a great one. I grew up in a home that didn’t really have a leader. In many respects I had to wade my own way through my early years and find my own direction. In that sense, I was my own leader from an early age—and while that’s not always the same as leading others, I think it’s important that you have the ability and confidence to lead yourself before you ask others to do the same. I joined the army at age 17, graduating a year early from high school to do so. There are many, many things that I appreciate from my service in the military, but few are better than the honor I had to follow great leaders and for the learning experience to follow bad leaders.
From my experience in the military, and in my opinion, there are only two core parts to being a leader: problem solving and inspiring others.
Having the ability to identify what resources you need, what resources you have, what resources you can get, and accepting that sometimes not all of the resources you need are ones you can get, is the key part of overcoming problems. Appreciating your successes and reflecting on your failures—and taking responsibility for those failures—is an enormous part of critical thinking.
I want to emphasize that always being successful is not a core part of good leadership; sometimes the team fails, sometimes the leader fails, sometimes the task was impossible, and sometimes—more often than not—the other team was simply better. Failures are a fundamental part of being on a team and being a leader. Being a leader is realizing that sometimes you’ll fail, and sometimes that failure will be directly a result of a decision you’ve made. Being okay with that is one of the most traumatic weights a leader must bear. Leaders will make mistakes. As a leader, if you haven’t made a mistake, then you’re either not facing the right kinds of challenges, aren’t realizing that you are indeed making mistakes, or you haven’t been a leader long enough.
Leaders aren’t omnipotent deities; we’re men and women that bear the weight for those who follow us—because the collective is better for it. One of the more difficult realizations is that after a failure, you don’t have the luxury of lamenting in solitude. Your first obligation is to the team that follows you: you have to pick your team up from the loss, reassure them it’s okay, and reassure them that we will learn from our mistakes and that we will do better. Reassure them that in the future we will win! Only after you’ve restored morale can you then begin to lament, reflect, plan, and improve. You must always remember: those who follow you come before yourself. Always.
While enjoying the challenge and appreciating the euphoria of success will make being a leader more palatable, sometimes the best leaders are those that are leaders because of necessity. Having the team come to you and ask you to lead them is a powerful moment—it’s often surprising, humbling, and terrifying. But it’s in that moment a good leader realizes the necessity of it and obliges. These unsolicited leaders often have a unique advantage: they’ve already earned the trust of their team.
But what if you aren’t an unsolicited leader? What if you still have to earn that trust? In order to earn the trust and respect of your team, you have to prove to them that you can fulfill the social contract they need:
For without these two things, the simple fact will become blatantly apparent: they don’t need you. It’s only after you’ve proven your worth that your team start to trust you and to perform well for you. If you’re a fan of Harry Potter then you’ll remember the expression: “The wand chooses the wizard.” I believe the people choose their leader. Now, of course, most people will obey those who have power over them, but that is not being a leader—that is being a dictator. I also believe that the power a leader has is truly granted by the team, not by another authority. If you fail enough as a leader and strive only to dictate, then your team won’t follow you—they’ll underperform, they’ll disobey, and they’ll eventually abandon you. Then you’re left once more leading only yourself.
I wholeheartedly believe that strong leadership isn’t wholly derived by reading about it. I believe strong leadership is something you have to experience, and bad leadership is something you must have endured. But what if you’re on your own in this—if you’re left to wade your own way through it? The first realization again is to know you’ll make mistakes, so listen to others and reflect often. Look to other leaders that you aspire to become, and follow their example. If you’re currently a leader of leaders, then you should consider mentoring others. If you’re truly on your own, then look to examples of leadership you can relate to—even heroes have heroes.
So who do I think is a great fictional leader?
Despite being highly flawed, I believe Rick Grimes is a great fictional leader to learn from. The first thing he’ll teach you is that leaders make mistakes, and they bear the weight of those mistakes. When the team fails, Rick holds himself responsible, and it tears him apart inside. While I don’t advocate that you internalize all of the struggles you endure, I do believe it’s important to keep them separate from your team and to not lash out on them irresponsibly. (The unfortunate case for Rick is that he has no one else, due to the whole apocalypse thing.) Rick is also a great example of selfless service; he doesn’t lead the team for himself: he leads for others. If there is sacrifice to be had, he is the one enduring that responsibility. It’s these moments that tell the team, in more than words, that he is serving them as much (if not more) than they are serving him.
Rick grows as a leader throughout his experiences; he doesn’t know how to handle most of the situations he’s faced with, but he makes his best informed guesses and learns from his mistakes. It’s his growth that I appreciate most about his character in the show. And if you’re a diehard fan of The Walking Dead, then you’ll appreciate that his team follows him even when he makes mistakes, and even after he falls from grace more than a few times. The reason they follow him is because that despite his flaws, the team knows know he cares for and serves them, and while he’s made mistakes, the big decisions he makes were the best that could have been made given what they knew and what they could.
If you’ve never experienced Band of Brothers, then I urge you to watch it—but not for the historical accuracies or for the excitement of war, instead I urge you to watch it for the best exhibition of camaraderie I have ever seen depicted on screen. Within Band of Brothers, Richard Winters grows from the leader of a platoon to the leader of a company and ends as a leader of the battalion. Winters earns the trust of his men in training by proving his ability to make competent decisions, but also by shielding his men from unnecessary hardship—often at cost to himself. Winters also becomes a leader of leaders, and is apt at discerning if the men he is appointing are serving themselves or serving others.
Band of Brothers has more than one example of leadership—including good leadership and bad leadership. At the core, however, leadership is about serving the team. I urge you to keep that ethos in mind during the show.
Before SSGT McGuire came to my platoon, we were lacking good leadership. Despite not being a malicious person, the existing platoon sergeant had some fundamental flaws which often resulted in a lot of undue suffering; in time we lost faith in his competency to make good decisions. While SSGT McGuire wasn’t able to make all of the problems go away, he made great efforts to shield us the best he could from those problems—often at cost to himself. He understood what the team needed to endure, and worked to break down the constraints we needed broken in order to succeed. He understood that morale was a fundamental part of being a leader, and simply proving that he was there to serve us inspired us to serve him two fold. With our willingness to follow him, SSGT McGuire pushed us much further than anyone else could: we performed better, we worked harder, and we worked longer. In the end, the fact that we wanted to follow him made us an effective team. I carry a memento of his leadership with me every day.
So if you are currently a leader or an aspiring one, I ask you to reflect on yourself: why do you want to be a leader? The answer to this will be complicated. In the end, whether you’re a leader of men or a leader of an industry, I hope the root motivation is because you want the ones who follow you to succeed. If it’s not, realize that you’re doing isn’t leading: it’s dictating.