(This column is dedicated to the memory of Lt. Todd J. Bryant, a West Point graduate and U.S. Army platoon leader who was killed in action in Iraq 12 years ago this past week, on October 31, 2003. He was 23.)
We talk a lot about professional people (here and here) and unprofessional people (here and here). It's an important distinction. Professionalism can make the difference in getting the job you want, landing the client you'd like to bring in, or achieving whatever opportunity you want to pursue.
There's something bigger about that word, though--something that can unlock good habits and vastly improve your odds of success in any endeavor. I learned a bit about these aspects of professionalism during my time in the U.S. Army, and I learned even more as an author and journalist covering the military.
A professional is technically someone who does something for money, but the word has come to suggest more: a true expert--someone who is no-nonsense, experienced, and reliable. It's a word we use in the military constantly, separating great leaders from the not-so-great.
Here are seven short but crucial things I've learned that true professionalism requires, along with the biggest challenges associated with them:
While it's actually the last thing on this list that you should acquire, it's the first thing that other people notice. Professional people know what the heck they're doing, and they carry themselves in a manner that communicates it. They're also confident enough to acknowledge the things they don't know. True, authentic confidence is impossible without the other six items below.
Challenge: Build your confidence on something real--not just bluster.
2. Communication skills.
The ability to communicate clearly is a prerequisite to professionalism. It does nobody any good to become a valued expert at something but have no ability (or perhaps no desire) to explain it effectively to others. Take the technical person who intentionally obfuscates out of fear: unprofessional as a leader at least, no matter how good he or she may be at the technical side of the job.
Challenge: Take pride in your area of expertise, and be willing and eager to share its wonders with others.
At its core, professionalism is about the trust that others can have in you to do your job--and do it well. If you don't have integrity, however, nothing else matters. Measure yourself by how you act when you're sure nobody's watching.
Challenge: Hold yourself to a higher standard of integrity than others would.
4. Strategic thinking.
Truly professional people think long-term. They see the big picture and they identify goals worth pursing. Professionals should be able to explain how each step in the journey they're traveling relates to achieving worthwhile objectives.
Challenge: Articulate to yourself and others what you're doing--and, more important, why it matters.
5. Tactical proficiency.
That said, people can't be true professionals by only understanding their field from a strategic perspective. They have to actually be proficient at the real job they're doing. You can't be a truly professional leader of an editorial team, for example, if you don't know how to report and edit; you can't be a truly professional engineer if you don't know the underlying science.
Challenge: Stay up-to-date on the developments that make your field work. Even better, be one of the innovators.
A great leader empowers other people, treats them with respect, and gives them a goal worth working for. He or she also sees other people as just that--people--and holds them accountable. (For what it's worth, there's a big difference between a great leader and a mere manager.)
Challenge: Ask yourself, if your kid brother or sister were to join the military, would you want them to have a leader like you in charge?
There aren't a lot of business management books out there on the idea of "how to be a really great follower." That's too bad. For one thing, studying leadership without studying followership is sort of like learning to jump out of an airplane without learning how to open your parachute. For another, none of us is always in charge. We're members of teams, and truly professional people want their teams to succeed. Truly professional people understand that means helping other leaders to achieve.
Challenge: Ask yourself, when was the last time you set aside your ego and enthusiastically embraced the role of a follower?