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Five Ways to Learn About Leadership

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    Don Parks

Here are excerpts from the speech that Business Professor Don Parks gave at the Student Leadership Banquet on April 22, 2010. The speech was titled “How to Not Become “Dilbert’s Pointy Haired Boss” or Ways to Learn About Leadership.

From the earliest times in human history, an awful lot of people have thought and written an awful lot about leadership. Plato and Aristotle disagreed about who should be a leader and the roles of a leader. In the last hundred years or so, more than10,000 scholarly articles and countless books, across many academic disciplines, have been written about leadership. While some of them are awful, most at least provide useful tidbits, layer by layer, that, added together, create an intriguing layer cake of understanding.

Tonight, I want to share a little of what I’ve learned of learning about leadership. Five ways I’ve learned about leadership include:

First, read books explicitly about leadership such as Yukl’s 7th ed. Leadership in Organizations, Kouzes & Posner’s Leadership Challenge, or Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership. Also read books not explicitly on leadership, such as individual and organization histories; fantasy books such as Lord of the Rings, and books such as Band of Brothers. Movies and TV – even cartoons and movies like “Over the Hedge” can reinforce what not to be – a Dilbert boss. Have fun. Be intentional.

A second way is to observe good and bad leaders, and try to understand what they are doing and why. Direct observation, without media filters, is best. Be intentional.

A third way to study leadership is to use time you have already committed. You are active in a variety of organizations. Take advantage of Student Activities leadership lunches and online resources, Paideia, sports, organization, and Intra-Fraternity Council leadership opportunities. From earliest times, it has been obvious that the three things that affect leadership effectiveness are leader, followers and situation. So use classes that deal with leaders, situations and followers; courses like Shakespeare, Foundations of Business, Organization Behavior; courses in Psychology, Sociology, History and Political Science. Be conscious of leadership connections in your coursework. Be intentional.

Fourth is through trial and error. While experience is invaluable, it should be paired with knowledge and reflection. Use leadership knowledge to plan what you want to accomplish, then afterward, assess how well it worked. Be intentional.

Finally, add to or create a personal bookshelf and file on leadership that you can reference in the future – an addition for your file is a handout with a list of leadership books on the table as you leave. Be intentional.

Now for the advice. When handed lemons – and at some point we all are – make lemonade. Every leader I know suffered some setback, some lack of recognition, some promotion not received despite deserving it. At some point, we are all handed lemons.

Three short stories illustrate how to make lemonade.

  • In southeast Alabama, farmers raised cotton up until around 1917, when an infestation of boll weevils destroyed the crop. Peanuts were planted and saved the farmers and the local economy, so the townspeople of Enterprise, Alabama, put up a statue to what? … The peanut? … No, … to the boll weevil.
  • Kenny Rogers (somewhat later), wrote and sang “The Gambler” with lyrics that include: “Every hand’s a winner; and every hand’s a loser,” “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,” and “Know when to walk away and know when to run.”
  • George Marshall was the top general in the U.S. Army during WWII. Winston Churchill called him “the organizer of victory.” In the wake of World War II, as the war-torn nations of Europe faced famine and economic crisis, Marshall, by then Secretary of State, first called for and crafted U.S. aid. It was labeled the Marshall Plan. One would think that someone so successful would not have had major setbacks. But he did. In the mid-1930s, instead of a combat command assignment, which by all rights he had earned and deserved, he was assigned to head up Civilian Conservation Corps districts in the southeast United States. He considered retiring, but instead performed his assignment to the best of his ability. Only a few years later, he had been promoted to 4-star general, head of the Army, and had the task of growing the army from 200,000 to over 8 million. His approach to training the young men in the Civilian Conservation Corps provided experience he used in ways he could not have foreseen when given what seemed like a dead-end assignment. Remember, life experiences are all connected. Out of obstacles, create opportunities. Turn the disappointment of lemons into opportunities. When handed lemons, make lemonade.

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