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It is time for leaders to step up or step aside

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Jack London, CACI International's executive chairman, argues that character is more important to leadership than any skill taught in business schools. In this excerpt from his recent book, "Character: The Ultimate Success Factor," he explains how leadership and management are two very different things.

Who's in charge here? Is your first instinct to think not me? Is that because you don't believe you're in a leadership position or don't want to be in a leadership position? If you're not willing to take responsibility for what's going on and what will go on in the future, then read no further.

What is leadership? Admiral Arleigh A. Burke (U.S. Navy admiral and former chief of naval operations) defined leadership as "understanding people and involving them to help you do a job. It takes all of the good characteristics, like integrity, dedication of purpose, selflessness, knowledge, skill, implacability, as well as determination not to accept failure."

Leadership is not a title or position. Far too many executives have been terrible leaders. Have you ever worked in an office or on a project where the person everybody looks to is not the person with the highest title? That's because leadership and management are not the same thing.

Managers typically work by consensus even though, in my experience, always doing things by consensus leads to mediocrity or failure -- accepting the lowest common denominator. Leaders are driven by the mission at hand and by their personality and energy. They have knowledge and skills, answers and direction. They set the goals, identify the tasks and drive forward to make things happen. Leaders convince others of the importance of the mission. They also refuse to fail.

People look for leadership, not just management. A manager tells you what you're supposed to do. A leader inspires you to do it. No one says, "Take me to your manager." It's "Take me to your leader." People want to follow their leader.

Leadership is driven by purpose. There is a goal to achieve, a cause to fulfill, a problem to solve, or an opportunity to seize. Good leaders aim to do the right thing. They respect and trust the people they lead, empowering them to achieve their best. Certainly, there are ego-driven leaders who achieve results, but their narcissism undermines them over time. People don't want to be around them, much less work for them. Strong yet humble leaders who focus on developing those they lead, while accomplishing the mission, are typically successful more often and for much longer.

From mentoring a colleague to launching a major initiative, leadership opportunities abound. So ask yourself, why do I want to lead? Why do I want to be a leader? Do you enjoy the power and perks that come with a leadership position? Do you see leadership as a duty, obligation or burden? Are you motivated for the right reasons?

While leadership is a chance to make your mark, the opportunity comes with even greater responsibility. You have a responsibility to the organization and to your team to accomplish your task, using resources wisely, making good decisions and identifying new opportunities. You are also responsible for maximizing your team's abilities, motivating them to be resourceful and innovative, and recognizing their achievements. Leaders also must be problem-solvers. They are responsible for managing risks and are accountable when mistakes are made. If you're not willing to accept this responsibility, then you better think again about taking charge. It may not be your calling! Leadership is an opportunity -- even a privilege -- that you must sincerely embrace and want to take on.

Some contend that leaders are born, not made. I believe that the mechanics of leadership can be learned, and skills improved, but character can't be compromised. U.S. Army General Norman Schwarzkopf said, "Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy." Stormin' Norman was spot on. Character is the most important component of leadership. It starts with why you want to be a leader and how you take on the responsibilities.

Four intangibles of leadership

My experience suggests that leadership is all about character. By working with several inspirational and effective leaders, I've identified four intangibles of leadership that distinguish the best leaders -- and all four intangibles are based on character.

Integrity. The first attribute is integrity. Leaders should be trustworthy and dependable. As Peter Drucker once noted, "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things." What's the difference?

Integrity not only shows where you stand, but also where you expect everyone else to stand. The best leaders don't try to install integrity -- they instill it, inspire it, exemplify it, model it.

Integrity means moral leadership -- doing the right thing no matter what and inspiring everyone else to do the same.

Courage and conviction. The second interlocking leadership intangible is courage and conviction. Courage is not allowing your actions and decisions to be controlled by fear, doubt or uncertainty. Conviction is the belief in what you're doing -- and the strength to get it done. It's also the willingness to take risks. This does not mean that you don't have a fear of failure. What it does mean is that you aren't easily frightened away.

Former British Prime Minister James Callaghan once said, "A leader must have the courage to act against an expert's advice."

Commitment. The third leadership intangible is commitment -- being persistent and determined. Pat Riley, who won eight NBA championships (five as a head coach and one each as a player, assistant coach and team executive) once said, "There are only two options regarding commitment: You're either in or you're out. There's no such thing as life in-between." Coach Riley is right. Championships are never won by teams [that] practice occasionally or give 50 percent. The same goes for all goals. Success in anything really important is never achieved without commitment -- unrelenting commitment.

In my experience, commitment is made up of two things. First, determination is the emotional energy that a leader possesses to establish goals and get moving toward them. Second, persistence is staying power. It's easy to get energized and sprint into action. Maintaining momentum and reaching big goals, however, is not easy! Achieving major goals can be a long-term effort, but great leaders get it done!

So leadership starts with integrity, is revealed through courage and conviction, and gets actualized through commitment.

Vision. My fourth intangible of leadership is vision. [Anglo-Irish] author Jonathan Swift defined vision as "the art of seeing what is invisible to others." The challenge for leaders is to get their team to share that same vision and make it happen!

Vision starts with the attitude that anything is possible. Have you ever heard of a pessimistic political candidate? Or an uninspired inventor? The best leaders operate in the realm of what's possible, not just what's probable.

What would you think of a man who visualized a helicopter, tank, calculator, double-hull boat and plate tectonics? What if I told you this man was an uneducated painter who lived 500 years ago? Leonardo da Vinci may have been the most talented person who ever lived. Clearly, he didn't limit his imagination.

In 1966, characters on a science-fiction TV show spoke to one another using handheld devices. "Star Trek" not only predicted cell phones, but also influenced and popularized other modern technologies, like tablet PCs, PDAs and MRIs.

A big part of vision is intuition. Leaders not only have a vision of what they want to achieve, they also have ideas about how to achieve it. Did one of your college papers change your life? How about inspiring you to create a new industry?

FedEx founder Fred Smith could answer "yes" to both questions. While at Yale in 1962, Smith wrote an economics paper outlining overnight delivery service in the computer age. He saw the growth of IBM and supercomputers, recognizing that automation would change distribution. He argued that passenger-routing systems used by air freight shippers were inadequate. Smith proposed that shippers needed a system designed for air freight that could meet demands. He then set the paper aside.

After graduating, Fred Smith spent four years in the U.S. Marines Corps, including service in Vietnam. During his service, Smith saw many supplies arriving late or ending up in the wrong places. When he left the Marines in 1971, computers had begun to take hold in business. So, Smith returned to his college paper idea. Inspired by the bank clearinghouse network, Smith created the hub-and-spoke model for shipping. That same year, the 29-year-old Smith incorporated and raised nearly $90 million in venture capital. It took four years before the company showed a profit, but FedEx is now a household word that means priority shipping.

Vision also enables initiative. Having a clear vision of what you want to achieve and a clear idea of how to get it done is a strong motivator. A leader's vision is what connects employees, goals and values together to achieve their best results. As GE's former CEO Jack Welch once said, "Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision and relentlessly drive it to completion."

Leadership starts with integrity, is revealed through courage and conviction, gets actualized through commitment, and is driven by vision. I describe these attributes as intangibles not because they're elusive but rather because they're essential. Since they all derive from character, we already possess the means to demonstrate these four attributes. Still, it's up to each of us to cultivate them -- to become the best leaders!

You can learn to be an effective leader, but the desire has to come from within. Do you know if you have leadership potential? Do you already seek a leadership role? In either case, the opportunity will arise for you to step up or step aside.

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