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Attributes of an Effective Leader By Colonel Phil Bossert, USAF (retired)

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March 31, 2011
Colonel Phil Bossert

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I’ve been very fortunate in my U.S. Air Force career and now as a civilian advisor to the Afghan Ministry of Defense to have had many opportunities to both lead and teach leadership.

I’ve concluded there are six key attributes that effective leaders must have including: 

1 Integrity. Without question this is the number one attribute of an effective leader.   We teach this in the U.S. military.  In one of the best books ever written about leadership, The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner, they point out that in multiple surveys taken in a number of countries, this is consistently rated as the top attribute that followers demand of leaders.
If there is any doubt about this, just look at tonight’s news or pick up any newspaper on any day.  I heard a four-star Air Force general once say that it is not a one mistake Air Force; it’s a one crime Air Force.

Over a two-year period at the University of Houston, the ROTC programs hosted eight leadership seminars with civilian professors.  We taught 480 aspiring leaders a variety of skills.  Before we hosted our first leadership seminar at UH, the military and civilian professors decided what we would teach and we did not show each other our lessons until the day of the seminar.  It was amazing how our key themes reinforced each other, and we all agreed that integrity is the number one trait of an effective leader.

2 Be a change agent. Many business schools confuse management with leadership.  They are very different.  Leaders change organizations for the better while managers maintain the status quo.   We have plenty of managers in our country but many would argue we have a shortage of effective leaders.

To be able to change an organization a leader must be able to plan effectively. I attended a business luncheon last year in Houston and the speaker said that a big reason most small businesses fail within the first five years is because of a lack of planning.   In the military we spend enormous amounts of time in strategic planning, deliberate (war) planning and in crisis action planning.  It all pays off, with the U.S. military having the reputation as an organization that gets the mission done.   

3 Communicate well.  Clearly technology has given leaders many additional ways of getting out their message, but many aspiring leaders rely too much on technology.  In other words one cannot lead via e-mail, Facebook or Twitter.  

In a very insightful editorial in the Wall Street Journal in January 2010, Rachel Marsden wrote, “Does anyone care that technology is destroying social graces and turning people into rude jerks?” She also writes, “Too many people seem to be grasping for ways to connect with others while rarely actually connecting in a way that has true value or significance.”

We have a long way to go in our society before we discover that proper balance between technology and leadership.

4 Be a people person. Another essential trait of a good leader is to be emotionally intelligent, a people person and to make caring for people a priority.  Leadership is an art and science–it’s very dependent on the situation.  It depends on reading that particular situation, and that means reading people. 

Many civilians have the mistaken impression that U.S. military leadership simply involves officers barking orders at enlisted personnel.  Well, it doesn’t work that way, at least not today.   Sure, lower ranking personnel have to do what they are told by those higher in rank, but even today leadership involves lots of persuasion, a willingness to accept feedback, and a talent for building support in an organization, especially for major changes.

5 Have enthusiasm. The leader has to be a true believer and they must be able to convey that enthusiasm in multiple ways, not only by giving pep talks but also leading by example. 
We had a rule at Air Force ROTC in Houston.  If the 50-year-old colonel and his staff can run three miles around the UH campus at 6:00 a.m. on a Monday, then every cadet can. If a leader is not committed to the mission, then no one will be. 

6 Be a team player.  Leaders know how to turn groups of strangers into seamless teams and how to meld different divisions or departments within organizations into true partners. 
The power of teamwork should never be underestimated, nor the role of the leaders in achieving this teamwork. 

Now there are other important attributes of leaders including the ability to process large amounts of information and to make good decisions, competency in their particular field, innovation and creativity, among others.  Everyone has their model of the ideal leader.  The important point is to have a model of the ideal leader and to strive to personify that model through self-study, education, training, experience and reflection.

Colonel Phil Bossert recently retired from the USAF after 28 years on active duty. A 1982 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and an airlift pilot with over 3,900 hours of flight time, he is a veteran of military operations in Afghanistan, the First Gulf War and Panama.   He first deployed to Afghanistan in December 2001 and is back as an advisor to the Ministry of Defense in Kabul.  Colonel Bossert returns to Friendswood, Texas in December 2011 when he will launch Civil/Military Leadership Seminars.

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