The complex art of leadership is constantly evolving in response to an even more complex world. Knowing this makes searching for quality leadership guidance tiresome and at times misleading. For this reason, I sought out to discover the best repeatable sources for leadership guidance. I wanted to find leadership lessons that are filtered through an environment which mimics our overall society. I was looking for a source of lessons where my sample matches the current overall leadership environment. A classification of leaders that people can study for a wide range of experiences and knowledge from multiple leaders and know their advice is worth learning.
My research began with comparing industries to determine which ones are the best representations of our current society. After some time examining different fields, I began to notice a trend that organizations commonly refer to their groups as teams with missions, and this got me thinking, the world in which leaders are currently operating is diverse and dynamic just like sports teams and military units and because of this, it may be worth studying the best leaders in these two fields if we want to learn what characteristics best represent the current leadership environment.
Both sports and military units are rapidly changing their main actors, leaders, and environment in an attempt to outpace the competition. Moreover, the diversity between and within sports teams and military units matches that of the most complex global organizations. The diversity between two teams within the same sport can be as dramatic as any international company and the same is well-known about the military. Consider cultural differences between American Football in Texas and the Northeast or cultural differences between east coast and west coast Navy Seals. They are both the same entity, yet cultural differences mold each group into its own being.
Additionally, the dynamic environments created through constant player and coaching staff trades outpaces any Wall Street business. Again, military units are also known for rapid deployments and the ability to be ready for anything in a moment’s notice. Sports teams are constantly trading players with very little continuity throughout seasons and military bases around the world are always rotating troops.
After identifying my two industries, I conducted my doctoral dissertation to see just how similar the two industries were, and I found a 94 percent relationship. That goes to say that there was a less than six percent chance of finding a result this close or closer. This finding indicates that leadership styles used in the sports leadership world can be applied to the military and vice versa with a high expectation that the lessons learned will transfer.
Upon learning this, it made sense to examine both industries in hopes of identifying common leadership styles employed by their top leaders. I spent three years reading sport and military research and history books taking note of any characteristic that was considered one of an effective or respected leader by the author or a quoted subordinate of an examined leader. I then categorized the most commonly found leadership characteristics as identified by other researcher’s inductive and deductive studies as well as journals and literature reviews of commonly referenced leadership icons in both sports and the military into five characteristics, professional excellence, positive personality traits, team cohesion, well-balanced vision, and empathy. Below is a brief explanation of my findings that I hope you consider when forming your unique leadership identity.
Leaders are the heart of building great teams. They are the ones who bring people closer and help them grow from talented individuals to collaborating performers. If you want to look for living proof of this, just look at Sir Earnest Shackleton’s epic Antarctic adventure where he kept his shipwrecked crew alive and for 21 months. Including being stranded in their ice-trapped boat for 10 months, camping on ice floes for five months, sailing on small boats for a few weeks, then surviving on an inhabited island for a few more weeks. When Shackleton took his six-man crew on a 17-day 800-mile journey from that island to civilization to get help, they landed their boat on the wrong side of the island and had to traverse uncharted mountains with no gear for 26 miles.
A leader’s exemplification of their professional excellence is at the center of being a leader in your profession. Showing your dedication to your discipline is how leaders gain their followers’ trust. Shackleton’s men would have caused a mutiny if he wasn’t the expedition leader they needed. The best way to form trusting relationships is through sharing your knowledge with your people, properly coordinating events without interference so your people can get the proper training they need, building a sense of connectedness within the team, showing your team you are courageous enough to put the right cause before yourself, and empowering your people before taking care of your personal needs. Leaders of professional excellence motivate by helping their people grow as professionals and they do this through being an ideal example of a person in their profession.
Positive Personality Traits
Leaders are the example of high work ethic and determination. Imaging showing up to work and finding a manager who cannot do the job herself. Now image showing up and being welcomed by a manager who is fully competent in her craft. It’s difficult to follow someone who does not have the ability to do their own job when they tell you to do yours. Leaders don’t follow their men into battle, they lead them into battle.
With that said, showing high work ethic and determination towards the team’s goal are the best ways of showing you are worth following. The best leaders are motivators, they have the ability to inspire an entire organization behind an idea. No one did this better than Steve Jobs. From starting Apple in his garage to making it a successful company, being kicked out of that company, then re-hired and making it better than anyone could ever have imagined, Mr. Jobs was the cover model of high work ethic and determination.
Effective leaders take control of situations and let their people know they are in charge while providing top-notch training and instruction for their people. Leaders are coaches. Picture your favorite coach. Did they have control of the situation while being a role model and providing you and the team with thought out quality training and instruction? All leaders like all coaches have a unique way of working with their people, but the best ones are always loaded with positive personality traits. The best coaches are teachers who get their hands dirty with you. There’s not a more positive feeling than knowing someone is going through something with you. If that someone is your leader, chances are your admiration for them will get you to do anything.
Teams are more powerful when leaders highlight the strength of the team over the strength of the individual. Leaders do this by painting positive mental models of the team for their people and letting them know they are a top caliber group. Team cohesion is a leader’s responsibility and can be improved my motivating the team, providing unparalleled support, and providing open vertical and horizontal communication channels. Even when Great Britain was under constant bombardment during World War Two, Sir Winston Churchill kept the country together and bombs exploded in living rooms and stores came crashing down. He painted a positive image of their nation surviving anything because that is their identity. Winston captured his nation’s attention so well that moral remained positive despite the horrors around them.
The best leaders are excellent story tellers. President Theodore Roosevelt had a command presence that let everyone know the room was his as he motivated Americans during a time of great progress. He would make a point to punch his fist into his palm to get a point across that America is a nation of progress and his agenda had to be met to keep up with that progress. Great stories allow people to paint a picture of everyone working together towards the mission. This enhances cohesion and funnels every individual’s strengths into a single unstoppable force.
Visions steer the team like winds in a sail, sometimes like a mast on a sailboat, a team’s vision needs to be readjusted. Great leaders don’t unnecessarily hold onto the past, they know when old visions no longer serve a purpose and are able to let them go. Leaders are also great at managing present values and lining those values with the current vision. The best leaders are also aware of the progressive nature of leadership and are excellent at creating and adopting new values as the situation evolves.
During perhaps the most pivotal time in American history, second possibly only to the Revolutionary War, President Abraham Lincoln had to adjust the vision of a nation to match the progressing values of a society. What once was deemed acceptable by the masses was becoming extinct and his influence made him the fulcrum reweighing American values and tipping the scale towards freedom for all.
Leadership more than anything else is about earning people’s trust and trust can only be achieved with impeccable moral integrity. If your people trust everything you do and say, they will follow you to the ends of the Earth. The best way to prove your understanding is through genuine concern for command and self-sacrifice for your dependents. When leaders place those below and not only above them before themselves, it shows everyone that the leader cares about the team more than progressing their career. When George Washington was an officer for the British during the French Indian War, his focus was more on his career than the larger cause. However, as he matured and progressed in rank he constantly put his career on the line for the right cause. He learned that his people matter more than himself, and when those same people came asking him for help years later against the British, he answered.
Showing people you care is best achieved by exemplifying sincerity of purpose and showing unwavering compassion towards all those in general. Helping not just your people, but everyone within your influence. If a leader doesn’t care about their people, they are managers maneuvering individuals like cattle as tools for their self-progress. Leaders understand their strongest asset is their people caring and getting behind their cause and people will not care or get behind anyone who does not care about them.
Below is the exact chart from the findings of my dissertation, A Comparison of Sport and Military Leaders. Reference this as you are finding your way as a leader and act out the traits that make up the larger characteristics. Awareness of the five effective leadership characteristics alone will not make a difference, it’s acting upon the smaller traits that will prove to your people that you are worth following.