“Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.”
…are a joy to be around. They encourage, support, and contribute. They smile a lot and laugh a lot. This attribute is contagious. Confidence inspires us to emulate the positive flow we are observing. If sustained as an element of leadership behavior, confidence can be transformative. The history of warfare is replete with example after example of how a confident leader can turn the tide under the worst of circumstances. There are also plenty of examples of how a sustained level of confident leadership helps the team to win, and win, and win again.
It’s important to distinguish confidence from arrogance. Arrogance is a diluted form of confidence without the upside. Arrogant leaders are, by and large, shortsighted. They are self-focused. Their behaviors are more an act than an expression of core values and strength. A confident leader isn’t pretending to be stable, mature, poised, and ready to tackle challenges. Their behavior is honest, and as such, potent in a world filled with pretenders.
There are many personality types in leadership, and that’s okay. I’m not suggesting a homogenized leader profile is the goal here. Quiet people can be confident, loud people can be confident, emotional people can be confident… you get where I’m going with this. Being confident as a leader is the goal.
I’ve worked for many types of confident leaders. The silent but deadly ones and the screamers. What comes through in both extremes of personality is sincerity. Hard to fake sincerity. People sense it. A competent and confident leader, who is genuinely sincere, is a potent leader. A leader people will follow. A willingness to follow is critical to achieving strategic and visionary success. Inspiration is a lofty word. It conjures up emotional detachment from the status quo and a misty eyed embrace of the possible.
A leader who inspires others is valuable. This intangible is hard to measure and sometimes even more difficult to explain; but these leaders do exist, and they do move mountains. Study inspirational leaders across all categories of business, politics, and warfare. The common threads are there for you to find and use as a guide to become more inspirational as a leader.
This element of leadership is difficult to measure. I understand it is an intangible with real value and that flare, attraction, or flamboyance, whatever you call it, sells. Actors and politicians know this; leaders should understand the impact of Charisma, too.
Charisma is frustrating for me because I’ve found it is difficult to train or coach a person to be charismatic. Not truly charismatic anyway. I’ve had success helping leaders be less stilted, boring, or unimaginative, but converting a wallflower into Leonardo DiCaprio is a skill that eludes me. Do I have charisma? I guess so, to a point. Not headline-grabbing, leading man charisma, to be sure, but maybe just a little sparkle.
In my case, I started out an introvert. A bookworm who was too undersized in school to be more than a second-string player in sports. I looked so much younger than my age that girls in high school always assumed I was a freshman, even when I graduated. For my first three or four years in the SEAL teams, I was on notice to learn and keep my new guy mouth clamped shut.
It wasn’t until I was twenty-five that I began to display a compelling personality while leading. I was more confident; I’d been a SEAL for eight years by that time and was established as a proven professional. I was still small in stature for a SEAL operator, and I still looked much younger than my age, but I was able to be more extroverted, to allow my sense of humor to show, and I was wise enough to appear poised, at least during normal daily activities. I still had a long way to go.
Getting your direct reports to like you by hanging out with them isn’t going to help you establish charismatic leadership or gain respect. They may buy you a drink, laugh at your jokes, and act interested in your thoughts; but this doesn’t mean they like you. It may be a way to figure you out, to learn how to game your personality, or to see if you are a potential threat to them. If you understand all this, then you can participate with both eyes open.
However, many young and inexperienced leaders do not see this social interaction as a risk. The danger here is compromising your responsibility to lead when leading means settling difficult issues, counseling failing performers, or worse, promoting or firing employees. Every decision considers the adverse impact on their relationship with the party or parties involved. A good percentage of young leaders fall into this trap. Being liked socially doesn’t mean you are charismatic, and it doesn’t mean you’ve earned anyone’s respect as a leader.
The best way to improve your appeal is to find and then study the habits, behaviors, and communications style of charismatic leaders. Emulate as many traits as you can and practice them regularly. After every opportunity to communicate face-to-face with people, take time to roll back the moment and evaluate your performance. Too crude? Too serious? Too lighthearted?
Note the positives and the negatives and commit to improving. Charisma is the sparkle that, combined with confidence and solid communications skills, empowers a good leader to become a great leader. And it takes a great leader to effectively marshal and apply resources and talent strategically.
Humor and Effective Leadership
A good sense of humor is a great attribute for leaders. It helps you put the stress in perspective and diffuses volatile situations. In the SEALs, humor is the balm that soothes all manner of mental and physical injuries. Laughing about a problem shouldn’t be construed as not caring and suppressing an expression of humor during tough times is almost always counterproductive.
Humans laugh when they are happy and when they are nervous. Laughter triggers all sorts of positive chemical activity in the brain that helps to offset the fight-or-flight urges an emergency or big failure can generate. People have a wide range of sensibility when it comes to humor (and I’m not suggesting you buy a joke book and go on tour).
Certain things make some people laugh and others angry. I’m saying it’s okay to see the humor in the situation. Smile to convey that you agree it’s so bad it’s funny. The tension around you will dissipate considerably. Especially if you are the leader. People take their cues from how their leaders react under duress. Once the light moment has passed, take a deep breath, and start problem solving.
You can tell a lot about your team’s state of mind by tuning into humor, or the lack of it, in the workplace. Are your folks somber and serious eight hours a day, five days a week? This isn’t natural. Do people relax when you interact with them, but revert to an imposed code of silence when you walk away?
Maybe a subordinate leader is enforcing a stiff work environment policy that is misplaced and subtly destructive. Pay attention. Humor, or the lack thereof, is a key indicator of morale. Morale is a vital element in executing dynamic change, and visionary change is always dynamic and often perceived as threatening. It’s your job as a leader to use all the tools at your disposal to holistically address the factors that combine to make strategic growth and change a possibility.
If I were to start all over again, knowing what I know now, I’d make sure my demeanor and communications style was firm but friendly. Open but professional. I’d balance getting to know my people with trying to become their friends. I’d spend more time listening for voice inflections, tone, and body language, seeking clues to the state of individual and group morale. I’d make humor a part of my toolbox to prepare people for struggle or to diffuse high-stress situations.
Since I didn’t begin with these insights, I learned the hard way, through experience. As I look back, I realize I’ve evolved in so many ways, but there are still rough edges that need sanding down. Commit to looking, feeling, and acting confident, and use humor to beneficial effect.
Stay Firm Yet Flexible
Navy SEALs are hardnosed, tough, and determined. They are also flexible, agile, and innovative. Take time to evaluate your leadership style. What does your behavior convey? What do your spoken and written words convey? Are you tough all the time? Are you so flexible that you can’t make a decision stick? Or are you so inflexible that all decisions must come through you first?
This isn’t easy, but it is vital if you want to lead change successfully. I would list the strengths and weaknesses and work on the most impactful weakness first. Focus, practice, observe, correct, practice, repeat. Then tackle the next weakness and so on. At best, it might take a year to change your habits and create new ones. Eventually, it will feel natural to you and to anyone watching and listening to you.
Performing the role of business leader at times is just that, a role. This chapter touched on various behaviors, attitudes, aptitudes, and actions that make a manager a leader, and a good leader, a visionary leader. It is a difficult role, to be sure. I still struggle to do it all well, even today. Staying balanced, poised, warm, inspirational, reflective, astute, confident, and visionary takes study, practice, and faith in the value these skills and capabilities will bring to your leadership game.
I stress these things in a business strategy book because strategy is about more than just a plan. To evolve into a visionary leader, these foundational skills are mandatory. Without them, people won’t follow; and without followers, you are a leader in name only. You can do this! You must do this! Improve your leadership style and watch the magic begin!
Marty Strong is a Retired SEAL Officer, CEO, Chief Strategy Officer, the author of eight novels and two books on business leadership. Be Nimble – How the Navy SEAL Mindset Wins on the Battlefield and in Business and Be Visionary – Strategic Leadership in the Age of Optimization. www.martystrongbenimble.com