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23 Things Great Leaders Always Do

In honor of the Army's 239th birthday, here are some of the top leadership lessons I learned from serving in and reporting on the United States Army.
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No organization talks more about leadership and trying to teach its people to become excellent leaders than the U.S. Army. Having both served in the Army and reported on it, I've known more military leaders than I could possibly count. Most were admirable professionals. Some, unfortunately, didn't live up to the standards we have a right to expect. However, there were quite a few others who were truly amazing. These are the leaders who pass what I call the kid brother test: If your kid brother or sister had to go to war, you'd feel a little better knowing that these were the people in charge. In honor of the Army Birthday--the 239th anniversary of the date on which the Continental Congress first authorized the recruitment of troops--here are 23 things great leaders always do (most of which are taught in the U.S. Army).

1. Identify objectives

Rule No. 1 in leadership is to settle on a worthy goal. Nothing is more disheartening than doing hard, dirty, dangerous work in support of fuzzy objectives that nobody can even articulate. In the military, leaders don't always get to choose their objectives, but they should advocate vehemently for objectives that are worth their soldiers' efforts and risks.

2. Gather intelligence

Most military units have a person or a unit in charge of collecting and collating intelligence. In business, we might think of this as market research and competitive analysis; in athletics, we might think of scouting the competition. Regardless, a great leader works to find out what challenges his or her people will face before sending them into action.

3. Plan a course of action

Good planning starts with the objective and works backward to where you are now. It's easy to articulate but can be very difficult to do, which might be why so few would-be leaders actually do it. Instead, they pursue interesting or promising strategies without truly considering how or whether any particular action will lead to their ultimate goals.

4. Scrounge for resources

If you have every necessary asset to accomplish a goal when you first set out, either you're incredibly fortunate or you haven't set your sights high enough. Truly great leaders know that pursuing worthy goals means pushing teams beyond their abilities and assets. It's why we say that true entrepreneurship is "the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled."

5. Step to the front

Your team needs to know that you're even more committed to the objective than it is. That means standing up for it and being visible--literally in front of team members at times. Optics can be most important. You're the leader. Act like it.

6. Encourage your team

Optimism is a force multiplier. A team won't believe it succeed unless its leader believes it. So, acknowledge challenges and setbacks, but keep them in perspective. Unless you're convinced that your goal is now unattainable, don't let discouragement reign. (If you do become convinced that your goal is no longer attainable or worthwhile, go back to Rule No. 1!)

7. Correct when wrong

Leadership isn't about being liked. It's about acting in a way that engenders respect, which also means holding your team accountable. When individual team members fall short, it's up to you as a great leader to correct them. Doing so in a constructive manner sends the message that you care about both your mission and your people.

8. Build esprit de corps

You want your people to feel that their team is more than the sum of its parts. (That's part of why most soldiers I know like the Army's current recruiting slogan, "Army Strong," more than the previous one, "An Army of One.") People also want to know that you'll have their backs even if they fall short, simply because they are part of the team.

9. Mentor your people

Being a true leader means thinking long term and committing to your people even after they're no longer part of your effort. That means offering mentorship and opportunities for them to grow.

10. Exercise body and mind

If you haven't served in the military, you've at least seen the Hollywood version--soldiers working out together, running in formation, calling out cadences. Routine military workouts aren't going to turn people into superstar athletes, but they do set the tone. It's hard to be a great leader if you don't take care of your mind and body.

11. Communicate effectively

As a leader, your words are among your most important tools, so if you're not communicating, you're failing. If your team doesn't know its ultimate goal, or if it doesn't have a good understanding of the plan to get there, or if it doesn't appreciate how its personal contributions are vital, you're probably doing something wrong as a leader.

12. Sacrifice as necessary

When it's cold or wet or dangerous, soldiers want to know that their leader isn't asking them to do anything he or she won't do himself or herself. This is a universal leadership principle. If you're telling your team members that they have to work weekends or tightening your department's budget, you'd better be willing to share the pain.

13. Review and adapt

As a leader, you don't just set a goal, devise a plan, give an order, and sit back. Instead, it's up to you to check progress continually. If things aren't working, figure out why, and make a change. You've probably heard the Albert Einstein quote: Insanity is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." So don't do that!

14. Admit mistakes

If your team makes a mistake, as a leader it's your mistake. The buck stops with you. Take responsibility, and embrace it.

15. Check small things

You can't possibly check everything, so instead, create a culture that suggests you could wind up checking just about anything. Your team members--whether they are soldiers or the staff of a marketing department--will take their cues from you. You need to be able to rely on them to follow up and to ensure that the things they can see are working correctly.

16. Find reasons to praise

It's remarkable how just a few good words from someone you respect can inspire you to work harder and achieve more. Great leaders know this, so they're always on the lookout for opportunities to offer words of praise and encouragement. The caveat is that these have to be sincere remarks, which in turn means you have to know your people well and care about them.

17. Take time away

This came home to me when I was in Iraq as a reporter, and I wanted to interview a high-ranking officer, only to be told that he had gone home on leave--basically the military word for vacation. I'm sorry, a general on vacation in the middle of a war? The theory was that if the top commanders didn't take leave, then nobody below them would, either. You need time away from your work and your team in order to see things clearly and lead better.

18. Thank and appreciate

Thanking people is different from simply offering encouragement. It means pointing out the connection between their individual effort and how it affects the ultimate objective. It's a basic human need to want to do good work that means something. Show people that you see their work and value it.

19. Exercise judgment

At a basic level, your good judgment is one of the only things you have to offer your team members. They need to know that you're weighing the cost of their efforts against the impact on the final objective--and whether the final objective remains worth it. If you're asking them to do something, you'd better believe it's worthwhile and will work.

20. Show compassion

Your mission is important (otherwise it shouldn't be your mission). However, it's not the only thing going on in your people's lives. More than that, people screw up--and you will screw up, too (see Rule No. 14). So, although you want to hold people to high standards, you also want to embrace your humanity. People aren't machines; they need to be treated like people.

21. Recommit to the life

Smart leaders know that external rewards are rare and often unsatisfactory. Medals and thanks are simply not enough to justify the horrors of war. Similarly, money alone is rarely enough to make people happy after working hard in business in entrepreneurship. Thus, if your work is not its own reward, you will probably never be truly happy. Ask yourself often whether you truly believe in what you're doing. If the answer is no, then find a way to change it.

22.  Go to sleep content

Lack of sleep will ruin your life. Worse than that, it will make you a less effective leader. So, recognize that sometimes the secret to being a more effective leader isn't always to work harder; it can sometimes require you to get away, get some rest, and get recharged. If you're committed to what you're doing and fulfilled by it, you'll sleep better and be more effective.

23. Leap out of bed

See Rule No. 21 and Rule No. 22. If you don't leap out of bed each morning eager to get to work and lead your team, it probably deserves a better leader. Want to read more, make suggestions, or even be featured in a future column? Contact me and sign up for my weekly email.

Last updated: Jun 13, 2014

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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