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The Measurement of a Leader

| March 21, 2017

by Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading, The Measurement of a Leader, is an essay by Jeff Sherrill, Assistant Director for Information Technology, College of Business Administration, University of Nebraska–Lincoln.  The essay first appeared as a program reflection earlier this year.

Last year, I read the memoirs of Union General and later President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant.  I was really excited to read his memoirs since he had written them knowing he was terminally ill and that, for the second time in his life, he had lost much of his fortune in bad business deals. His intention in writing the memoirs was to leave some source of revenue for his family after he passed away.  Due to his declining health, Grant gave a very honest and open account of his life, often with some tremendous insight.

The thing that stood out to me was a small section, not even a few pages long, where he talked about how he could tell if a general under his command was going to be successful or not.  I’m paraphrasing here, but President Grant said that his initial impressions of a general were based on how he would order his men to attack a position.  If a general said “Come on boys!  Let’s go!” Grant knew they would be an effective leader.  However, if the general ordered his men to attack by saying “Go on boys!” he knew there was going to be problems.

Grant expounded on the two phrases and how they were profound in gaining insight into the leadership ability of his generals.  When a general would say “Come on boys!  Let’s go!”, it implied that the general was going with the troops, which in turn, provided the general an opportunity to better understand the situation and adjust accordingly.  It also exhibited a feeling of togetherness and inspired the troops who knew that their leader was with them in the fray, sharing in the danger. Whereas “Go on boys!” implied that the general was calling his troops forward to fight without him or that the general would try to lead from a place where he would be safe while all the risk would fall on his troops.

As with many things, I sought to transfer this insight into the work that I do and learn from this about what makes a good leader.  Fortunately, I was able to find a lot of similarities in Grant’s description of good leadership that can be applied to any type of work that any one of us does. 

The philosophy of “Come on boys!  Let’s go!” is very much applicable to all of us.  Naturally, when a leader is visible and engaging with those they are trying to lead, their presence and influence really comes out.  We are naturally drawn more to follow someone who we know and trust rather than someone who remains in the shadows.  Leaders who understand those around them are, just like the successful generals, able to better understand the forces that regularly influence a team or individual.  This allows the leader to make more informed decisions that benefit all. 

Both philosophies of leadership are alive and well in the university today.  You’ll notice the kind of leaders that Ulysses S. Grant would want by listening to what they say.  Trust the leaders who demonstrate the “Come on boys!  Let’s go!” attitude by including words like “we”, “together”, “collaborate” and other words that show inclusion in their conversations.  The spirit of this phrase is definitely alive and well in many areas of IT.

However, the spirit “Go on boys” is prevalent as well.  Issuing directives without gaining proper insight into the work has created real problems for a leader.  These leaders tend to deflect responsibilities to prevent any risk to him or her.  Such actions reduce trust in leaders and can make a team ineffective.

Both kinds of leaders exist around us.  However, very importantly, we can choose which kind of leader we want to be.  While we won’t (hopefully) be charging at an enemy, with our sabers held high, there will be times where how we act, what we say, and the quality of our leadership will impact our teams or organizations.  It may mean the difference between victory and defeat for something important to our work.

Perhaps you can do a self-test or your leadership effectiveness.  Is your approach attitude, “Come on, let’s go,” or “Go on”?  It makes a real difference for your team to know that you have some real skin in the game. 

Make the week a great one for you and your team.  .  .    jim


Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.