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4 Traits of Great Leaders

Four easy-to-master traits from great leaders such as John F. Kennedy, Sam Budnyk, and Gene Kranz.
President John F. Kennedy
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It is often said that hindsight is 20/20. By looking to the past we can learn how better to adapt and achieve in the future. By learning from lessons of old we can accomplish great things if we only listen to what we have been taught.

Throughout my life I have been fortunate to have been mentored by leaders great and those individually successful yet lacking the ability to lead others. Some individuals can achieve a great level of success but lack the ability to drive a great organization forward.  As such, they are always limited to their individual accomplishments. Great leaders, however, can lead many to accomplishments above what they themselves thought possible and, in turn, to levels of success above and beyond what the individualists will ever accomplish.

Here are the traits that these leaders exhibit that give them the ability to achieve these lofty ideals.

Aspire

Great leaders aspire to reach beyond that which convention says is possible. They know that greatness is not achieved by reaching for mediocrity. They reach for figuratively, and in one instance literally, the moon.

President John F. Kennedy stepped to the podium on a warm September day in 1962 and delivered the memorable lines “…We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…”

In this moment he set an aspiration we had never believed possible. He aspired for greatness for an entire nation. To break free of our earthly limits and land a man safely upon another terrestrial body. As a result of those public aspirations within the decade Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would take mankind’s first steps on the moon.

Great leaders do not aim for the easily achievable. They aspire for loftier goals. Why, you may ask? Because if you plan for mediocrity all that you and those around you will ever achieve is just that, mediocrity. But if you aspire for greatness, even if you come up short, more likely than not you will still achieve a level greater than that which you knew you could reach. Great leaders always aim for goals higher than others think can be achieved.

Aspire to greatness.

Plan

But to achieve greatness you must also have a plan. Aspiration without a plan is simply a dream. What materializes the aspiration into reality is the plan. On June 6, 1944 the Allies did not wake up and say, “Time to take back Europe from the Axis – Let’s Go.”  There was a plan. In reality, a plan that took months to develop and one of the most carefully and detailed in military history.

By 1944 the Germans occupied all of continental Europe. To win the war the Allies had to reclaim France and other occupied territory. Planning for the invasion began months in advance. The Axis feared an invasion on the Western Front. It created what became known as Fortress Europe building the Atlantic Wall, a defensive barrier of concrete, steel, imbedded troops and weapons more than 1200 miles long stretching from Denmark to the Spanish border.

The shortest shipping distance from England to France was to the Pas de Calais region. It was here the Axis expected the Allies to invade. It was here Fortress Europe was strengthened with mines, barbed wire, other obstructions and powerful artillery.

But the Allies had a better idea – a better plan.  The British and Americans selected, instead, a landing place further south, on the coast of Normandy. It was nearly 75 miles from England but was much less defended than Pas de Calais.  Every detail of the invasion was scripted.  Nothing left to chance.  And as we now know, the details of that plan, and the countless sacrifices made in executing the same, turned the tides of the war in Europe and the fate of the world as we know it.

Have a plan.

Inspire

But before you can execute the plan you must inspire those around you that they can achieve by following the plan. You must inspire them to achieve the aspiration through the plan.

We need not look to world leaders or now iconic military figures to demonstrate this point. We need only look as far as our local heroes and those who mentor us on a day-to-day basis.

Many years ago I was fortunate enough to play football for the legendary Florida high school football coach Sam Budnyk. For 47 years he coached the Cardinal Newman Crusaders of West Palm Beach, Florida, to countless wins including victories over teams that, on paper, were superior to Coach Budnyk’s teams in every way. But as the old expression goes, that’s why they play the games.

Coach Budnyk believed in his teams and the young men who played for him. For nearly five decades every fall Friday night he challenged young men to rise to the occasion and be the best that they could be. To accept any challenge and turn them into opportunities. In short, he inspired generations of young men to accomplish more than they thought they could achieve.  And we did.

To this day Coach Budnyk is the all-time winningest football coach in Palm Beach County, a region of the country which arguably can claim the largest percentage of active and retired professional football players from the NFL as well as countless athletes that played on NCAA championship football teams. Coach Budnyk’s teams included some of these athletes, but played against more, and won against most. Why? Because he inspired us to do so, to be better, to achieve greatness.

Inspire those who will act on the plan.

Execute

But as Coach Budnyk would always tell his young men, potential in the absence of achievement doesn’t mean anything. You must aspire to greatness. You must plan the path to get there.  You must inspire to achieve the aspiration.  But ultimately you have to execute the plan to reach your goal. There is no better example of how these four factors come together to achieve great things than the events which began to unfold on April 14, 1970 173,790 miles from Earth.

On April 11, 1970, Apollo 13 launched from Cape Kennedy. Apollo 13 was the seventh manned Apollo mission and third intended to land on the Moon. Three days into the mission an oxygen tank exploded crippling the spacecraft. In a millisecond NASA’s planned third landing on the moon shifted into a rescue and recovery mode.

Could they fix the craft remotely? Could they get it back to Earth? Could they save the lives of the three astronauts still hurdling through space towards the moon?

NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz famously stepped to the plate and with the oft uttered creed “Failure is not an option” led a team that would ultimately bring home James A. Lovell, John L. "Jack" Swigert, and Fred W. Haise.

Presented with a near impossible evolving series of challenges Kranz and his team aspired to bring the crippled ship home. They planned, tested, and re-planned every aspect of what would be needed to accomplish the goal. The team was inspired by the setting forth of all options and that failure was never considered as an option. And finally, and most critically, the team executed the plan accomplishing arguably NASA’s greatest feat: on April 17, 1970 Apollo 13 came home.

Aspire. Plan. Inspire. Execute. Achieve your greatness.

Last updated: Jan 19, 2012

MATTHEW SWYERS | Columnist | Founder, The Trademark Company

Matthew Swyers is the founder of The Trademark Company, a Web-based law firm specializing in protecting the trademark rights of small to medium-size businesses. The company is ranked No. 138 on the 2011 Inc. 500.

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



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