Thursday, May 19, 2011

Final Thoughts

What makes a leader effective? To answer this question I have looked across three continents and twenty-five hundred years of written history. I have looked at good men and bad men, Presidents and peasants, only to discover that one single picture of leadership does not exist. If a person asked Niccolo Machiavelli and Paul Rusesabagina the question that opens this post, the two men would give very different answers. Despite the varied portrays of leadership that I have seen, some commonalities exist. If I can observe what some of the foremost leaders in our history have in common, maybe I can figure out a way to translate those principles in a way that improves my own leadership.

The importance of communication of leaders appears over and over again throughout the books I have read. Whether it is Oskar Schindler saving lives, Abraham Lincoln changing the values of our nation, or Martin Luther King, Jr. commanding his followers from prison, communication is vital. Eloquence in oration allows the leader to convince those around him to do what he wants them to do. And that is a leader's primary objective: make the goals of others line up with his goals. People have all kinds of different opinions about what they want to happen and what should happen. A leader's job is to sift through the mess of choices, make the right one, and convince others to follow him.

Another important quality for a leader is clear decision making in the presence of emotion. Often times, situations can illicit a response that cloud a leader's ability to act rationally. A true leader can block out emotional distractions and concentrate on selecting the proper course of action. Both John F. Kennedy and Paul Rusesabagina give us examples of how to ignore anger and still lead effectively. Many people would fail dramatically in the same situation. It takes a certain type of personality to be able to filter emotion out of a decision-making process. Nobody would ever say that leaders do not or should not feel emotion. Although when it comes time to decide the fate of those around him, a leader must not let personal feelings factor into the equation.

Finally, leaders need to care genuinely about their followers, or else feign genuine care very well. When people feel that their leader has their best interests at heart, they are more likely to follow his instructions and agree without questioning. As odd as the pairing is, Joe Maddon and Antigone demonstrate beautifully what it means to show genuine care for those around you. The leader does not always have to put himself first, as Machiavelli would have it. When a leader acts selflessly, he earns the respect and trust of those around him because it shows that he wants the best for them. As the adage goes: "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." Leaders can lead much more effectively when his followers believe that he is on their side.

The main goal of a leader is to get those around them to do what he wants them to do, whether for selfish or selfless reasons. Communication, clear-headedness, and dedication are three important means to this end. Despite my efforts, the Platonic form of leadership has escaped me. However, I do think that I have identified three qualities that help greatly in making a leader effective. I hope that this journey to discover what it means to be a leader will assist me in the future. I fear that the ease of writing about leadership after reading some of the great leaders of our time will not match the difficulty of putting these tenets into practice in real life. Now that I have discovered some of the necessary attributes of a good leader, the challenge is to implement them in a way that improves my ability to lead in any situation in which I find myself.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

When a Leader Must Follow

Someone once described life to me as a series of totem poles. You begin at the bottom of a totem pole and slowly work your way up. Eventually you reach the top. But rather than staying at the top for long, you must eventually progress to the bottom of the next totem pole, only to have the process repeat itself for as long as you live. The obvious illustration for this is school. A boy starts out his elementary education in the first grade, where he is the youngest in his school. As he progresses from first grade to fifth, he works his way up the totem pole. Finally, he reaches fifth grade and he is the oldest in the school, sitting atop the totem pole. But that summer a funny thing happens: he moves into the sixth grade at a new middle school, where he is the youngest. The process will repeat itself for middle school, high school, and college.

So what does this mean in the larger context? For the sake of this blog, I want to look at this cyclical process in terms of leadership. A person who starts at the bottom of a totem pole must necessarily be a follower. That seems obvious. But as he moves to the top, he will be looked to as a leader. I have tried throughout this endeavor to figure out what makes a good leader. The question of this post is what happens when a leader has to follow? What does a man do when he moves from the top of one totem pole to the bottom of the next? I ask this question somewhat selfishly because it applies to my situation right now: a college senior and team captain will soon be transformed into a wide-eyed, inexperienced rookie.

Ben Franklin said, "He that cannot obey, cannot command." For him leadership and obedience go hand in hand. I tend to agree with his assessment. I think that serving time as a leader will allow a person to follow more effectively. A former leader understands the motivations and problems of a current leader. He will be more inclined to fall in line with what is asked of him. However, one problem could arise from having former leaders as followers: what if the former leader thinks he would do a better job than the current one? Whether the belief is correct or not, it could have disastrous consequences. On a basketball team it could lead to dissent within the team, or in a corporate setting it could lead to the subordinate getting fired. Even if a person has experience what it is like to lead those around him, he must accept his current role. The negative effects of reaching beyond one's established position could foster ill will and create problems. A former leader must recognize his situation at any given time. Just because he led at one point in his life doesn't mean that he will always be a leader. Life is a series of totem poles; sometimes you are at the top, and sometimes you are at the bottom.

Thirteen Days

"For a moment the world had stood still, and now it was going around again." -Robert F. Kennedy

This quote stood out to me upon first reading it, and I found myself returning to it throughout the book. I think Robert F. Kennedy accurately captures the general emotion of the Cuban Missile Crisis in this one line at the end of a chapter. Time and again, Kennedy depicts instances where it seems that the world is standing at the edge of a cliff, almost ready to fall. Yet, through the leadership of President Kennedy, the Thirteen Days came and went. The world avoided a potentially cataclysmic set of events. In the foreword by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., we see a part of a memo that Robert Kennedy dictated to himself. Obviously Kennedy is not impartial as the President's brother but it bears repeating. He says that there were about a dozen men involved in all of the discussions during the Thirteen Days, and if any one of six of those men were the President at the time, the world would have experienced nuclear war.

As I have before, I must acknowledge the bias of the author. In recounting the narrative of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Robert Kennedy hardly constitutes an objective perspective. Not only is he the brother of the President, but also he is writing about himself. He has a strong motivation to portray the actions of his brother and the United States in a positive light. With that said, Kennedy does make an effort to stay in the moment of the action he's describing. He mostly tries to avoid talking about things beyond the play by play of the events during the Thirteen Days. It would be understandable if Robert Kennedy got caught up at times praising the actions of himself and his brother, but he generally avoids that, to his credit.

Going into this book, I had very limited knowledge about the Cuban Missile crisis. I often thought it was synonymous with the Bay of Pigs. With his detailed accounts of the events and circumstances of those Thirteen Days in October, Robert Kennedy swiftly ended my ignorance. A couple events stick out in my mind that show leadership qualities that John Kennedy possessed. The first is a visit from Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko on October 18, 1962. Through reconnaissance missions over Cuba, the Americans had knowledge that the Soviets had missiles there and were constructing an underground stronghold. Kennedy debated with himself about whether or not to confront Gromyko about this during their meeting, but he decided against it. Gromyko claimed that Soviets were only providing assistance for Cuban agriculture and land development, while Kennedy listened incredulously. Despite his anger, Kennedy simply nodded his head and said he hoped for a peaceful resolution. When Robert came by the White House after the meeting he euphemistically said, "The President of the United States, it can be said, was displeased with the spokesman of the Soviet Union." Lesser men and leaders would have acted on this anger and berated Gromyko during the meeting or unwisely attacked the Soviet position in Cuba. Instead, President Kennedy controlled his fury and kept a clear head. He would never allow his emotion to endanger the American people or the world.
Kennedy's counterpart:
Nikita Khrushchev

The second event that I think illuminates a part of Kennedy's leadership is his meeting with Congress to discuss a course of action once they received knowledge of Soviet missiles in Cuba. President Kennedy and his advisors had come to the conclusion that a blockade, or quarantine, was the best option. During the meeting, Congressional leaders such as Senator Richard B. Russell of Georgia and Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas voiced their strong, emotionally charged opinions against Kennedy. They angrily argued that a military action needed to take place and that a blockade appeared weak. Despite the sharp criticism, Kennedy remained steadfast in his view. After the meeting Robert could tell that it had taken a toll on his brother. However, President Kennedy never wavered in his convictions. A leader needs to be able to withstand criticism and do what he believes is right. Not everybody is going to agree with a leader's decisions, but if the leader tries to listen to everyone and please others, he will fail. President Kennedy consulted with those whom he trusted, came up with a decision, and stuck to his guns in the face of adversity. All leaders should make decisions in this manner.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Maddon at the Helm

The Tampa Bay Rays are not the most talented team in baseball. They are not close. They have have the second lowest payroll in the MLB at a shade under $42 million. The teams surrounding them in the rankings are the Pirates, Padres, and Royals, none of whom will be playing baseball in October. After nine games, the Rays had lost eight and more importantly lost star third baseman Evan Longoria to the 15 day DL. Yet despite all this, the Rays sit atop the AL East, considered by some to be one of the best divisions in all of sports. Some would point to strong starts from the starting rotation, others would call it a flukey early-season quirk that will be soon worked out by the 162 game schedule. But those who understand this team would be quick to give a good deal of the credit to the man who wears number 70, manager Joe Maddon.

Maddon argues a call.
Two weeks ago DRaysBay, a blog dedicated to covering the Rays, wrote an article titled "Joe Maddon: The Underrated Leader of the Rays."A quick google search turns up other pieces such as "Rays' Manager Joe Maddon is Having Fun, and Success" from the New York Times or a story about how Maddon had a racist fan ejected from a spring training game. People seem to be catching on to the notion that he has something special going on down in Tampa. Listening to him talk during and after games it's amazing how composed he always is, that is until one of his players needs to be protected. Maddon does have the occasional confrontation with an umpire, but you never the feeling that he's doing it for his own personal show (see: Guillen, Ozzie). Small little events happen that show how he cares. For example, when Jeff Neimann had to go on the DL, the Rays called up Brandon Guyer from AAA Durham. In his first ever major league at bat, Guyer hit a two run home run. Needing to bring up a pitcher to fill Neimann's vacated spot, Maddon knew he had to send Guyer back down. Being the class act that he is, Maddon waited until the next morning to tell Guyer he was going back to Durham so that he could spend the night celebrating with his family.

In a game filled with staunch traditionalists, Maddon has earned praise for his willingness to adapt the new ideas in baseball. Recent statistical analysis has shown many of the long-held ideas about platooning, lineup structuring, and closer use are outdated or just plain wrong. Maddon is on the cutting edge in many of these regards. Whereas many teams can trot out the same line up 150 times a year, the Rays are forced to implement platoons to take advantage of the proper matchups. For example, behind the dish Kelly Shoppach plays against lefties and John Jaso against righties. That might be the simplest platoon that the Rays have. The roster is full of utility players who can play a number of different positions: Ben Zobrist (2B, RF), Sean Rodriguez (2B, 3B), Elliot Johnson (2B, SS, 3B), and the list goes on. This allows Maddon to mix and match lineups as he pleases, but it also means that many players will not be on the field at times. When teams have established lineups, playing time isn't a big issue because everyone is accustomed to their role. Maddon has to manage the emotions in the dugout that come with the uncertain playing time.

By all accounts, Maddon is a whiz in the locker room as well. His support for the players is obvious just watching games. He also extends that support to the internet, where he operates on Twitter, under the handle @RaysJoeMaddon. It is not uncommon to see a tweet from Maddon after the game talking about some small play that would not have really been worth mentioning to the casual fan, but he points it out and praises his players. It could be something as simple as advancing a runner with a productive out or moving from first to third on a single. Maddon acknowledges all the little things that make the team successful. As a leader, supporting those around you makes them more likely to listen and respond. Maddon is obviously smart guy and a talented manager, but without the respect of his players that wouldn't matter. He recognizes the importance of building up those around him in order to lead effectively. Whether or not the Rays continue their winning ways and make the playoffs, you can be sure that Joe Maddon will guide their ship as well as any manager in the league.

Lincoln at Gettysburg

With 272 words, Abraham Lincoln remade America. Garry Wills' book starts off with a seemingly impossible premise, one that looks more and more possible as the book goes on. The nation was at what could be called one of the lowest points in its history, and it needed a leader to step up and make sense out of all that was taking place. Lincoln's oration was an ancillary event of the day and did not give any indication that it would take on the significance that it holds today. When thought about in the proper historical context, The Gettysburg Address can give chills to any American. Garry Wills deftly illustrates the nuance and power that were likely lost on the typical attendant of the speeches that day.

The context of the speech rather than the actual text of the work composes much of the early part of Wills' work. In the 19th Century, a Greek revival was taking place in the United States. The obvious parallel that Wills wastes no time drawing is to Pericles' funeral oration. Since Greek thought and ideas were prevalent at the time, most people present would have no trouble recognizing this. I imagine it would be an eerie feeling at the time watching Lincoln's speech with the thought of Pericles looming in your mind. Both men stepped up to guide their countries through difficult times and provide visible leadership. To be able to make a powerful speech is an important quality for a leader to have. To be able to do it when the ones you are leading need it the most is invaluable. Although both Lincoln and Pericles are both well regarded orators, their most famous and most important speeches took place in some of the darkest times. That speaks volumes about them as leaders. I think that the Greek word logoslergon from Wills' breakdown of Lincoln's speech perfectly captures the crux of what he is trying to say: "The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."

The other part of context for the Gettysburg Address that Wills discusses is the culture of death at the time. He goes into depth talking about the American Cemetery movement that was happening. Basically, towns would construct lavish rural cemeteries outside of their limits and invite speakers to come for the dedication ceremony. The other part of this culture of death that Wills is sure to mention is a respect for those who appeared to be or actually were depressed. Lincoln was a brooding man, especially during his time as President. His typical nature was exacerbated by the personal tragedies that befell him in the last few years of his life. Although depressed people are not typically looked up to in our time, during the mid 19th Century Lincoln's demeanor was considered to be an admirable quality. This may seem on the surface to not be a common quality of a leader. Who wants a leader who walks around sad all the time. To me, that may be one of the more impressive attributes about Lincoln: he fought through some of the darkest periods in our nation's history while dealing with death and illness in his immediate family.

Most importantly, Abraham Lincoln subtly infused into our nation the values that HE wanted it to have. I don't know anyone who would dare to call the Gettysburg Address revisionist history, but as Wills says, "The Civil War is, to most Americans, what Lincoln wanted it to mean." Wills talks about Lincoln's "deceptively simple sounding phrases" and goes so far as to call the speech "a stunning verbal coup." He almost makes it sound like Lincoln tricked people with mind games. And that, in my opinion, is the single most important quality that a leader can have. In the least menacing way possible, a leader's job is to get people to do what he wants them to do. Often times, efforts to this end will be met with resistance. What better way to get someone to do what you want than to do it without their knowing? With 272 words, Lincoln infused his personal beliefs about the values of the nation into the national consciousness. Stripping away Garry Wills' complex analysis about the context of the speech and what it meant in its time, Lincoln was a leader because he stepped up when needed and got the people around him to believe and do exactly what he wanted.