Intangibles and the art of leadership

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Andrew B. Meadows
  • Commander, 42nd Aeromedical-Dental Squadron
One of Colin Powell's leadership principles states that "Leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of management says is possible." Just as masterpieces painted by art's great masters can't be reduced to sterile checklists of fundamental and necessary components of genius, the same holds true for great practitioners of leadership. 

The Air Force rightly utilizes many checklist-based tools in several of our personnel systems (i.e. performance feedbacks and performance reports) to assess leadership and performance. However, these assessments have limitations in identifying the truly gifted outliers among us. 

Masters in the art of leadership usually possess attributes that are more difficult to objectively measure or assess. At times, these traits are vague and tricky to define, but subordinates and peers alike are quick to notice if these "intangibles" are missing. Two
examples of traits I've witnessed in successful leaders throughout my career are authenticity and humility. 

Simply stated, authenticity is nothing more than being yourself. If behaviors are contrived or fake, subordinates will sooner or later discover the disguise and be a little more hesitant to follow one's lead. Numerous examples of great leaders can be found for every personality type imaginable. From the World War II era, Generals Marshall, Eisenhower, and Patton were each similarly successful, but they had completely different personalities. None of these great leaders tried to cover up who they were or
be something they weren't. 

Apart from being remarkably competent in many other areas, these great leaders were authentic. Everyone around them took notice and were ready to follow. More recently,
the two most public superstars of the Gulf War, Generals Powell and Schwarzkopf, were nearly opposite in their personalities, but just like their WWII counterparts, they were
completely effective in accomplishing their duties. 

The lesson here is simple - be yourself. As you grow and evolve as a leader, you can and should improve various supporting techniques such as communication skills and ability to foster teamwork, but along the way, never stray from the core of who you really are. If you do, then your followers are likely to stray as well. 

Humility is another "intangible" trait common among effective leaders. In a subtle but powerful way, it reinforces the feeling that the leader is focused on the mission and other team members, not themselves. Please don't interpret humility as a lack of confidence on behalf of the leader, quite the contrary. Confidence is absolutely essential in an effective leader, but it should never be displayed too publicly or in an overly self-centered

Humility is best understood by one of my favorite quotes, "Don't think less of yourself, just think of yourself less." If a successful leader follows this mantra, then those around him or her will celebrate any successes just as if it were their own. Conversely, if humility is lacking, any successes will be perceived as self-indulgent and be an easy target for criticism - certainly not a desirable situation for a leader. 

Humility also encourages the mindset that there is room left to grow and get better, which is essential for an organization to keep improving. Finally, humility helps develop relationships with those you work with by promoting openness and reducing anxiety - all while bettering the leader's results. With all these benefits, maybe we should all think of ourselves a little less, and focus on the mission as well as those around us. 

Take a look at those you work with, but more importantly, take stock of your own behavior on the job. Do the leaders you consider successful and worthy of your dedicated service
exhibit authenticity and humility? For those leaders you feel miss the mark, can you identify any shortcomings in these areas? 

While I don't mean to imply that these "intangibles" can be used as part of a paint-by-numbers approach to leadership excellence, my experience does suggests that all great leadership masterpieces have broad strokes of humility, highlighted by deep tones of

What will your leadership work of art look like?