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Art Callaham: Leadership, personified

September 09, 2012|By ART CALLAHAM

Over the past several weeks I’ve written about leadership from my own personal point of view. I’ve discussed several guiding principles that I believe make great leaders including communications, patience, decisiveness, and timing. This column is about self-assurance and focus.

A good friend of mine, local politico and elected to public office several times, offered to me a great strategy to insure an elected body focused on doing good for the folks who elected them.  I’ll not mention my friend’s name, or the elected body, let’s just leave it as someone local.

At the beginning of each year in the term, the elected body would meet in a retreat or closed session. During that meeting each member of the body would be asked to name a number one project, program or issue. The only caveat was that the project, program or issue must come to fruition or completion within the forthcoming fiscal year. After debate among the body and the consideration of input from staff, citizens or stakeholders, as well as some negotiation and trade-offs, the individual selections become the top priorities for the body for the coming year.

When the top priorities were set, individual members of the body had to agree to the list and resolve to not criticize, back bite, or vote against any of the top priorities. Of course this resolution was not binding and certainly situations surrounding money, law and constituent’s pushback often altered the priorities. The point, however, is that this strategy created focus — focus on a group of priorities that were, at least in the corporate mind of the elected body, good for those who elected them.

Dose that strategy always work? Of course not, yet this is an example of a leader creating the focus for those who are led. There is only one thing my friend left out of his strategy; the ultimate focus must be on outcomes, not just completing the project, program or issue.

Case in point: Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, as commander of all Union Armies in 1864, realized that winning individual battles (similar to successful completion of a project, program, or issue) was not an overall winning strategy. The ultimate and necessary outcome for the Union was to win the war.

Each time Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee thwarted Grant’s efforts to win an individual battle — e.g., the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Cold Harbor —Grant simply moved around Lee and remained focused on winning the war.

Another case in point: The successful commanders (leaders) of Roman armies often placed their least powerful legion in the middle of the battle space. This invited the opposing army to attack the middle, focused on overwhelming that portion of the line. As this occurred, the center of the Roman line would retreat, allowing the Roman flanks to entrap the opposition. Opposing armies attacking the Romans often focused on the wrong thing — the weakness in the Roman line — and missed focusing on the ultimate and necessary outcome — winning the battle. From a leader’s perspective, focus is an important principle, as long as the leader is focused on the right thing. 

Finally, self-assurance is often referred to as being cocky or arrogant, mostly by those that don’t have it. Seldom do great leaders “succeed” by accident. If you don’t believe in yourself, generally others don’t. Human nature dictates that most folks will not follow a pseudo-leader who starts out to finish second. Finishing second is the first loser. I could go on and on, but you get the point.

Doak Walker, the famous running back for the Detroit Lions, noted that quarterback Bobby Layne, the leader of the team in the 1950s, “never lost a football game; he just ran out of time. Nobody hated to lose more than Bobby Layne”. Bobby Layne, the leader of the team, displayed self-assurance: Give him the ball and you had the opportunity to win — regardless of the score.

U.S. Grant, with his back to the Tennessee River at Pittsburg Landing on the night of April 6, 1862, called his depleted staff and his division commanders together and predicted: “We’ll win this thing tomorrow.” That’s self-assurance. Grant’s army had been thoroughly routed by Maj. Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston’s Confederate Army of Mississippi on the first day of the Battle of Shiloh.

However, on day two of the battle, the self-assured Grant, communicating well with his subordinates, applied a patient, well-timed, focused and decisive counter-attack that turned defeat into victory. This is leadership personified.


Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.

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