If you’re aiming for a leadership position, trade any potentially inhibiting passivity and inertia for initiative, perseverance and drive. As an anonymous quote says: “Leaders don’t wait. They shape their own frontiers.”
I spoke with Farrell Chiles, author of “As BIG As It Gets” and board chairman of Blacks in Government (BIG) from 2002 to 2006. He offers these strategies for shaping your own frontier:
Absorb knowledge. Gain expertise in all business functions of your organization — including procurement, human resources, contracting, information technology, budgeting, project management — even if these topics don’t interest you. You then will be prepared to make sound business judgments about all office operations.
Identify your knowledge gaps and then fill them by seeking appropriate projects, detail assignments and volunteer experience, and by exploiting training opportunities offered by your agency and professional organizations.
For example, BIG runs a highly competitive leadership academy for its members and has sponsored lectures from Senior Executive Service members on how to qualify for the SES. Many other professional organizations similarly provide leadership training.
Be first. “When I ran for elections in BIG and other organizations,” says Chiles, “I tried to beat others to the punch — to announce my candidacy first and early.” Chiles publicized his support and asked others to endorse his candidacy in order to convince potential rivals of the futility of competing against him.
Toughen your skin. “It can be lonely at the top; you have to be prepared for that,” Chiles warns.
”Being a strong leader sometimes requires making unpopular decisions, and even sometimes making decisions that you might not necessarily agree with yourself,” he says. “You must be prepared to take the bull by the horns, and bear criticism and negative responses from others. But remember, business decisions are not personal — they are business decisions.”
Chiles also emphasizes the importance of providing clear, cogent rationale for decisions after the fact. “I had to explain the consequences of our actions and our inactions,” he says. “You listen to the objectors. Try to respond in a positive, professional manner. And thank others for their different points of view.”
Go for the long haul. Don’t let occasional defeats paralyze you. You don’t need a 100 percent success rate to maintain a leadership position.
“I have studied leaders, especially political leaders,” says Chiles. “They don’t win every election and might not be on the winning side of every vote. But you have to stay in the game, and have a generally good win-loss record. Most importantly, persistence with integrity pays off.”
Get beyond flattery. Get outside of insulated bubbles filled by ego-boosting “yes people” and aggressively solicit candor from advisers. Create a safe environment for colleagues, staffers and others to provide honest feedback — including opposing arguments — on your decisions, speeches and strategies.
Reward others. Part of being a benevolent and popular leader is to publicly thank hard-working staffers for their contributions. For example, while Chiles was president of BIG’s Los Angeles/Long Beach Area Chapter, he helped initiate various awards, including Public Service Recognition Awards to deserving BIG members and to particular federal agencies for helping to foster a positive image for government service.
“The intent of the PSRA,” Chiles writes in his book, “was to provide recognition to our members who seldom received awards or recognition at their agencies. We presented each award at the recipient’s agency in front of their peers and bosses. The agency award was given to one particular agency to get more buy-in to BIG and to get unspoken commitment to support our programs.”
Give personal touches. While serving as board chairman, Chiles sent holiday and congratulatory cards to board members, issued end-of-term awards to departing board members, and sent cards acknowledging major milestones in BIG members’ lives, such as promotions, anniversaries, birthdays, college graduations and retirements.
Such seemingly small gestures may make big, lasting impressions on those whose support you need.