Leadership Interview

General Leadership Thoughts

How would you define effective leadership?

The definition I always used was: Good leaders get people to do what they want them to do; great leaders get people to want to do what they want them to do.

The goal of every leader is to "accomplish the mission," and the first measure of success of a leader is how well the mission is accomplished.

Any conscientious leader in a position of authority can usually get people to follow to one degree or another. The members of the organization have a vested interest in not antagonizing the leader, since he has the power to damage or destroy their careers, affect their pay, and modify their working conditions either for better or worse. Intimidation is his most effective weapon.

That leader will have to closely supervise the performance of his people all the time to make sure they are following the path he wants. He will find himself devoting endless hours to monitoring the performance of his employees, making corrections and disciplining subordinates often.

However, if a leader can motivate and inspire others to buy in to the values of the organization and commit to making a contribution to its mission, the leader's job will be easier, the performance of the organization will be superior, and the workforce will tend to be more content in their work and less inclined to disruptive activities.

What are the three most important characteristic traits leaders need to possess to be successful and why? What is the most important?

I'm not sure you can narrow it down to one or even three traits more important that the others. Great leaders have multiple traits that combine into a package that defines their leadership ability and style. They don't all have the same combination.

The ability to communicate. If forced to choose one trait above the others it would be this. I don't know how a person can lead others without the ability to communicate effectively. That is not to say that it must be grammatically correct or beautiful prose. It must be clearly understood. It must be honest and sincere. People spot a phony instantly. And it sometimes helps if it's a little colorful.

Also, it's not necessary that the leader be a great public speaker. Doesn't hurt, but it's not necessary. Communication can be effective in many forms.

The bottom line is that you must be able to convey your desires to your subordinates so that they understand exactly what you want them to do, and why it matters. These days it is not enough to issue orders. People want to know how there efforts make a difference. And if you can tell them that, their motivation level and commitment to the job will increase many times.

Responsibility. The leader must take responsibility for the actions and performance of his organization always. If he fails (as everybody occasionally does) he must never, ever make an excuse or blame a subordinate. A leader motivated by the knowledge that the "buck stops with him" will fail much less often and be driven to much greater achievements than the one who is quick to make excuses. Also, by maintaining such a standard himself, the leader can insist that subordinates do the same, and seeing his example, they are more likely to follow it.

Loyalty to those you lead. The leader who is loyal to his subordinates will earn their loyalty. The easiest people in the world to lead are those whose loyalty you have earned. One aspect of earning loyalty is what Marines often call "Taking care of the troops." That is, making sure they have what they need, are not treated unfairly, have the opportunities they earn and a myriad of other items. That is not to say that a leader must be some sort of soft touch who always says "yes" to gain the affection of subordinates. Leadership is not a popularity contest and loyalty will never be won by showing weakness or favoritism. They will only bring contempt. It is possible to earn the respect and loyalty of subordinates while being demanding and disliked.

Loyalty can also be earned by challenging subordinates to do more than they think they can, mentoring them along the way and the recognizing their achievement when they succeed.

In the end, the leader who is sincerely loyal to his subordinates, will earn their sincere loyalty in return, and be a far more effective leader.

Who are people you consider leaders and why?

During a long career with an organization in which leadership under the most stressful circumstances is prized, I have known many exceptional leaders. There is one who stands out from the fairly large crowd, however.

A big strong ugly Marine Master Sergeant named Ken Kreft...seemingly able to do anything; afraid of nothing; knew his job better than anybody; always had a clear vision of what he wanted to accomplish, and how to do it. He conveyed the aura of supreme confidence that the mission would succeed, even when nobody believed it, including him. He always seemed positive and delighted to be doing what he was doing. He always cared deeply about his Marines and about the success of the mission. He would cheerfully break rules he considered stupid, in order to succeed in an assignment (although he had his own internal guidelines about which rules could be broken and which could not). He had a powerfully magnetic personality that convinced you everything would work out as long as he was on the job...and it always did. He was a colorful, larger than life character, who if a movie had been made about him, the part would have been played by John Wayne.

He would drive his Marines to the brink of exhaustion for weeks until the job was complete. The next time an opportunity arose they would all scramble for the chance to go with him again. If they were selected they considered themselves inordinately lucky to have another chance to serve with him.

He was not universally liked by his superiors. Many were put off by his unorthodox ways. Some were intimidated by his superior ability. Those who liked him tended to be good leaders themselves and were able to appreciate both the results he achieved and the leadership he displayed.

He is no more perfect than any of us are, and his abilities being greater than most, his flaws are also great. The lesson in that is that perfection is not a requirement for good leadership, and I would contend that striving for perfection will almost certainly assure failure as a leader.

Personal Leadership Attributes and Experience

What are your greatest strengths as a leader?

I was a pretty good communicator, and had great success as a team builder. The latter was true only because I was blessed with remarkably talented Marines and even more able subordinate Staff NCOs.

How have you learned to become a good leader?

It is for others to say whether I am any good as a leader, but I learned what I know about leadership from observing other leaders (both good and bad) and applying the lessons to my own experience. I've learned from reading and even from movies. I've learned in formal schools and correspondence courses. I've learned from late night discussions with my peers. And I've learned by my own experiences the successes and even better from the failures.

In short, I learned from every information input that I came across.

Have you changed your leadership style over the years?

Not really. I refined it as I learned and grew, but I think my basic style remained nearly the same. Your leadership style really has to match your personality in order to work. Although I believe it's possible to change many things about yourself, your basic personality is there from day one. If you try to adopt a style in conflict with your personality, you are certainly doomed to failure.

Are there one or two experiences you look back on as having been especially valuable in helping develop your own leadership? Please briefly describe them.

I think that developing as a leader is evolutionary...the accumulation of many, many experiences. My first attempt at leading Marines was as a 17 year old Private at ITR, similar to today's MCT. For several weeks I was a fire team leader, until I was fired for failing an inspection. As a 19 year old Corporal, I had a little more success as an infantry squad leader at Camp Pendleton for about 6 weeks before going to Vietnam. There while I was still 19 I served as a fire team leader on the security platoon, and Assistant NCOIC of the Flight Equipment Shop among other things. Those first four years in the Marine Corps were marked by as many failures as successes, and I think that having those leadership opportunities so young may have had some impact on my later development. In particular, I truly believe that the lessons I learned from those early failures made me a better leader later in life.

What made these experiences so valuable?

I believe that lessons learned painfully are lessons learned well.

Have your own views of leadership changed over time? Explain how.

Only to the extent that I have grown up and my views are now those of a grandfather, while my first leadership experiences were those of a teenager.

Developing Future Leaders

Have you recognized leadership potential in your subordinates?

As I mention in a question below, the only absolute prerequisite to become a leader is the desire to lead. Therefore, leadership potential and the desire to lead are synonymous.

It is pretty easy to pick out the person who, when given the chance to lead steps up, and it's easy to spot the guy who avoids it.

How have you imparted your wisdom and leadership attributes onto those under your charge?

No particular wisdom to impart, but I always tried to instill in my junior Marines the idea that we are all leaders, and we need to talk, think and read about it all the time. When I was in a position to, I held regularly scheduled leadership classes and discussions. I made every effort to give each Marine a chance to lead some project commensurate with his rank, experience and ability. I observed and talked with them afterwards to evaluate both the positive and the negative aspects of their performance. I made it a point to create opportunities for informal discussions (usually over beers) in smaller groups about the Marine Corps, life in general and leadership in particular.

Do you think leadership develops with experience? Explain.

Yes. See above.

Are leaders born or developed, or a combination?

Leaders are developed. The only prerequisite is a desire to lead. Without the desire, one will probably not develop the ability. If that desire is present, all else can be learned. So called "born leaders" just pick it up sooner that the rest of us.

How does one develop into an effective leader?

Don't know. Better ask an effective leader.

Is there any advice you would give people early in their careers about leadership?

Just do it. Grab every opportunity. Critique your own performance. Learn from your failures and from your successes.

In the mean time, observe and evaluate other leaders, read, take lessons from every experience.

Know what you believe. Make all your decisions consistent with those beliefs. "To thine own self, be true." At the same time, never be afraid to modify beliefs that have proven to be incorrect. It is not weakness to admit you're wrong, if you are.

And lose your ego. Do not ever fall into the trap of believing that you are better than those you lead. Without them, the leader is nothing and will fail. The wise leader is servant to those he leads. That is not to say he is subservient. But he sees himself as teacher, guide, mentor and helper to those who will ultimately do the work.

Applied Leadership

Do you think leadership in your arena (e.g., sports, business) is much different from or involves different pressures than leadership in other arenas? Explain.

While the essential elements remain the same, the corporate culture and nature of the mission you are attempting to accomplish certainly impact the leader's approach. For example clear thinking and good decision making become much more difficult when the bad guys are in the wire and taking the wrong action can cost the lives of your people; taking no action might cost even more lives; even taking the correct action will probably cost lives and decisions must be made instantly to address multiple threats at the same time.

Do you believe it is important for a manager or supervisor to also be a leader? Why?

I have known many managers and supervisors who could not lead a hungry Marine to the chow hall. They were able to function, and even enjoy success using motivators such as fear or avarice. Most people need the job they have in order to support their families.

However, I believe that a manager who can do those things I mentioned in response to the first question will enjoy greater success in the long run. Motivated, loyal employees will put forth greater effort, than the brow-beaten guy who is just trying to not get fired. In addition, employees in most organizations have many opportunities to subvert the intent of the boss without his ever knowing it happened. Who is more likely to do that? The employee ruled by intimidation or the one whose loyalty has been earned by effective leadership?

In industry, good leadership when it can be found, results in higher productivity, lower costs, better quality and greater success.

What advice would you offer a subordinate under the supervision of a weak leader?

Hang in there. Support him as much as possible. Try to help him avoid mistakes if you can. Try to share some of his load if he will let you. Do not threaten him. Do not go over his head unless it is a matter of moral principal.

Above all, learn from him. Observe the consequences of his mistakes. Consider the strategies that you would use if you were in his place. These lessons will be among your most valuable when your time comes to lead.

Do you have any other thoughts on leadership that you would like to share?

I have endless thoughts on leadership, but I think I'm turning into a garrulous old man, so I will save them for another time.

Do you ever reflect, after the fact, about how effective your behavior was in a particular situation? Is this ever a source of new or different insights? Please share your insights.

I don't think it's a good idea to spend more than a fleeting moment or two reflecting on successes...except to consider how they might have been better. Excessive self congratulation just leads to hubris which has destroyed many leaders.

Failures however can and should be the source of many lessons and insights. It's important for a leader to be his own harshest critic, examining every instance when things didn't work out. Just as you would learn lessons from the weak leader, you must observe the negative consequences of your actions, both intended and unintended, and try to figure out why they happened and how to avoid them in the future.