People are always calling for better leadership. But while they want better leadership, there is not the same kind of agreement about what that better leadership would look like. In my career in football and business, I have seen what leadership looks like, and I’ve observed some important commonalities in great leaders.
First, a leader must have big ideas and goals. You can’t settle for mediocre just because that’s all there is right now. You have to see what is possible, how much you might be able to achieve.
|Fran Tarkenton barks signals to teammates during Super Bowl IX with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
There has to be a goal, a destination for success — and a path to get there. In my NFL career, that goal was a championship. The goal was to win every game, to get to the Super Bowl, and make it to the top. The goal was never to win, for example, 10 games. We didn’t look at the schedule, pick out 10 games to win and then let the rest go. Our goal was to win them all! And if we lost a game, that didn’t change our goal — we still wanted to win every game.
The only way to make big things happen is to set your goals high; if your goal is to be “pretty good,” then you won’t be any better and you’ll probably be a bit worse. If your goal is big, you just might make it — and even failing that goal you can still do something great.
I’m reminded today of the great Eugene Patterson, editor of the Atlanta Constitution during the Civil Rights era. He passed away this weekend, but he leaves behind a great legacy.
During the turbulent 1960s, he wrote editorials every day urging his fellow Southerners not to settle for what they were, but to dig deep and better themselves, to hold themselves to a higher standard. His famous column “A Flower for the Graves”
is inspiring, a great example of the kind of vision you have to have as a leader.
A second characteristic of great leadership is accountability. A real leader takes responsibility for the outcome of his or her actions, no matter what. I went to three Super Bowls with the Minnesota Vikings, and we lost all three games. If I had played better, we might have won those games. It was on me as the leader of those teams.
You can’t look for scapegoats to your problems. Blaming somebody else for anything that goes wrong doesn’t actually make the problem go away — and isn’t that the ultimate goal, solving the problem? Holding yourself accountable also sets a strong example for your team, that your number one priority is actually solving the problem and getting it right, not distributing blame.
When you take that approach, you’ll be rewarded with better thinking, bolder action, and more innovation from the people around you.
Scapegoating doesn’t work.
Finally, a leader brings people together. We can only learn from what we read, what we see, and what we hear. To facilitate learning and thinking, people need to talk to people. And they have to approach one another genuinely looking to learn.
They cannot keep their first focus on office politics, on looking for ways to protect their own position or hold rivals at bay. Everyone is part of the same team, with the same goals. Solving the problem comes first, not “winning” the debate.
Dinesh Paliwal, the CEO of Harman International Industries, made this point in a weekend interview in The New York Times. We cannot completely eliminate politics in any context — but we can try to contain it.
You do that by getting people together, engaging one another at a real, personal level. Everyone has to recognize they are part of a team, each with something to offer, and that you don’t win by beating the other guy; you win when you can all work together to solve the problem.
Of course, there’s a lot more to leadership than just those three points, but they will go a long way. If our leaders are focused on assigning blame, on winning partisan victories, then problems will never get solved.
If people are not meeting, talking, and engaging with one another, then problems will never get solved. If we set small goals and are content with mediocre results, then that is all we will get.
I think all Americans want our problems to get solved. We don’t care about the games, the office politics, the small stakes. Leadership is about solving problems. That’s what we want.
Fran Tarkenton is the Founder and CEO of OneMoreCustomer.com, a web resource for Small Business Advocacy and Education. After his Hall of Fame football career, Fran had a successful career in television and then turned to business. He has founded and built more than 20 successful companies and now spends his time coaching aspiring entrepreneurs. Read more reports from Fran Tarkenton — Click Here Now.
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