5 Attributes of a Good Leader

Every week, I share a list of 5 Things. These things are shared one at a time each day as part of my subscriber’s daily update. Want to get this kind of goodness in your inbox every weekday? Along with all sorts of other good stuff? Then become a subscriber. I am biased, but I think it’s worth it. This post is shared with everyone on my email list and is public at combatsnuggles.com. Feel free to forward this email, share on Facebook or Twitter, or otherwise pass along to whomever you think would enjoy it. Thanks for reading.

It was with a heavy heart that I - and many others - received the news of John Lewis’ passing at the end of last week. Representative Lewis stood 5 feet, 5 inches, but was a giant of American history. He was a man of brilliance, authenticity, caring and as pure a heart as ever existed. Our country is a better place, and closer to the promise of its founding because of John Lewis. The world is a better place because he was here. 100, 200 years from now the latest dipshit tweet from the president will be unremarkable and unremembered. John Lewis will endure.

My very favorite story about John Lewis is about the way he chose to tell his story. In the early 2000s, Lewis decided it was time to tell the story of his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. He had previously written a well received and bestselling book detailing some of the political background and impacts of his work, but wished to do something more personal. He could have asked any biographer in America - black or white - any of whom would have jumped at the opportunity. But as Lewis thought back, he remembered when he had first heard the story of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Montgomery bus boycott. It had been in his hometown in rural Alabama. He was given a copy of “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” a 15c comic book that told the story of the boycott and talked about the philosophy of nonviolence.

The then 15 year old Lewis was enraptured. Soon after he began to make his way to student organizing meetings, learning more about the movement and how he could be involved. The rest, as they say, is history. Literally in this case.

40 years later, Lewis thought about that comic and it’s impact. He told his technology affairs aide about his thinking. The aide, Andrew Aydin, was a lifelong comic book fan, and had in fact written his master’s thesis on the very comic that had influenced Lewis so deeply. Aydin suggested that Lewis write his own comic book. Lewis agreed to do it, but only if Aydin helped. They began working with illustrator Lewis Powell on what would become the three volume March. The work was not just a bestseller, it became an award winning phenomenon, winning numerous accolades.

As part of the release of the book, John Lewis attended his first Comic-Con. Lewis, in his irrepressible way, was told that people often dressed up as characters from comics at the convention. So Lewis donned a tan overcoat and backpack - the iconic look he wore the day he led marchers across the Edmund Pettus bridge - and cosplayed his younger self at the convention. He then proceeded to lead all of the children of Comic-Con on a march through the convention center. Because he’s John Lewis.

March would go on to receive the National Book Award. When accepting the award, Lewis would break down in tears remembering the summer of 1956 when he and his cousins had gone to their local library to get a library card so they could read books over the summer. They were turned away and told that books were only for white children. 55 years later Lewis was receiving the most prestigious literary honor in the country. 

If the arc of the moral universe bends, it bends because of people like John Lewis who push and pull and force it to. 

As I thought about Lewis and his example and his leadership I thought about what a dark and scary time we are in. And how much of it is because of poor leadership. One of the things that you have read a dozen times by now in these updates is that leadership has consequences. It matters. 

For this week’s 5 Things, I will be talking about the attributes of good leadership. I want to talk about what matters to me when I look at leaders, the kind of things that the quality leaders I have had have done, and how that has shaped me as a leader. All of us are leaders. We all have some level of responsibility for ourselves and others. That we may not always think of ourselves as leaders is beside the point. We often don’t give conscious thought to gravity, but it is still there doing its thing. We are leaders whether we think of ourselves in that way or not.

So what makes a leader effective? What makes them impactful? What can we learn from leaders like John Lewis?

This is my list of 5 Attributes of a Good Leader. 

#1 - Courage

One of the fundamental things that sets real leaders apart from those who are simply in charge is courage. The willingness to fight for something. The willingness to look for what John Lewis called “good trouble.”

Courage takes many forms. We often think of it as loud and boisterous and bold. That is because we live in an action movie culture. Courage can look like jumping out of a plane or running into a burning building. It can also be quiet. It can be reflective. 

Courage can happen in a singular moment - when you stand up to the bully or right the wrong - but more frequently courage is a slow burn. It is about dedication to the hard right over the easy wrong for years and years. It is about being willing to work toward a goal and being willing to put everything on the line.

I have said often that one of the most courageous acts I can think of is to come out as LGBTQ. To say “this is my truth, this is me,” knowing that there will be an undetermined price to pay. Courage is telling the truth, no matter what.

Courage is the foundation of leadership. Leadership without courage is management. You can be a good manager. And you can practice your skills. And you can improve and be more efficient, and you can even make small improvements at the edges of systems. But without courage, you will never lead. Without a willingness to confront the truth, take bold steps and think big ideas you will never make a meaningful difference. 

Courage creates leaders.

#2 - Vulnerability

When we decided to move from Fayetteville to Chapel Hill, one of the things that we were eager to do was find a place to go to church. So I sent an email to the pastors of 20 or so of the largest churches in town. I told them a little bit about our family, and asked about their communities of faith.

I was particularly interested, I told them, in finding a place for Willie, our son with autism. Willie was 8 at the time. I wanted to know if there were specific ministries for people with special needs, or support for individuals and families dealing with unique challenges. 

Some of the churches didn’t respond at all. Some responded effusively, gushing about special programs and special helpers. They said that Willie and our family would be welcomed with open arms, and made big promises about how they would support us.

I also got an email from Rick Edens, one of the co-pastors of the United Church of Chapel Hill. It was a simple response. We don’t have anything like that here, Rick said. I am not sure how we could support Willie. I would love to be able to talk to you, and for us to think through it together.

We decided to go to one of the fancy churches. One of the ones that made all the promises. It turns out that they didn’t have anything like what they promised. They were willing to have one of the youth group members shadow Willie around as he went to normal kids programming. We gently explained that wouldn’t really work for Willie. Instead we did what we had always done - we paid out of pocket for someone to work with Willie on Sunday so we could go to church. 

About a year later we left that church. That is another story. One that I am sure I will tell at some point. A few months later, Willie left for the Murdoch Developmental Center. And Barb and I decided to go back to church. We knew the church we left was out. There was no repairing that breach. But where should we go?

I thought back to Rick, and the simple email he had sent nearly two years before. An email that didn’t promise anything. An email that said explicitly “I don’t know.” 

When I received that email I had *just* left the military. In the Army, I was taught very explicitly to never apologize, to never admit when I didn’t know something. To say you didn’t know, I was told, is not what leaders do. Leaders know. Everything, all the time. And this is the mindset that I had when I first read Rick’s email. I was shocked that a leader would say he didn’t know. I dismissed him, and the church, as unprepared or unserious. 

I was wrong about everything.

Two years later I realized that what I had seen as lack of preparation was humility. What I had seen as dismissiveness was actually deep concern for our family, and the people in it. Rick was vulnerable, honest, direct. He was willing to say he didn’t know. It was a way of leading that I had never seen before.

Writer Brene Brown says that “(v)ulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” When I got that email from Rick, I had not yet learned the power of vulnerability. I was still closed.

I know now how important vulnerability is for real leadership. Leadership starts with saying “I don’t know.” And leadership becomes powerful when you say “let’s figure it out together.” 

We came to United Church of Chapel Hill. We never once regretted that decision. And I learned so much about leadership from Rick and Jill, the pastors at UCCH. And I am grateful for them. 

Vulnerability is a prerequisite for leadership. If you aren’t being open, you aren’t leading.

#3 - Integrity

My first Army unit was the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas. I was excited to go to Fort Hood, a large base about an hour from where I grew up in central Texas. And the 1st Cav was a distinguished Army unit with a unique and storied history.

My first battalion commander was a distinguished soldier who would later become one of the highest ranking women in the entire Army. She was an incredible leader and from the moment I met her I appreciated her tough but fair leadership and her unwavering devotion to the soldiers and families in her command. In many ways, I compared every leader that came after to her. Many were as good, but none were better. And a handful were way worse.

Including her replacement. He would also go on to great success in the military, and become a general. And he was one of the worst leaders I ever had. I worked closely with him as his aide for almost a year, and during that time I saw one of the lowest character people I have ever met - in or out of the military. He was obsequious to superiors, constantly sucking up and doing what he called “relationship building” with people he thought could help his career. If he determined that they couldn’t, he would dismiss or ignore them.

Where my first commander had been even keeled and patient, the second had a volcanic temper and would flare up over the smallest slight or perceived disrespect. He was incapable of hearing criticism or complaint. It was impossible to give him bad news.

He would regularly bash people in private, only to praise them in public. He talked about “supporting families” while presiding over a chaotic culture that created no predictability for the people that worked for him. He would hammer soldiers for small infractions if he didn’t personally like them, and if he did he would ignore even serious violations of military law. 

He was a nightmare, especially in comparison to the woman that had gone before him. A few years ago I tracked her down on Facebook, and we had a good conversation. She told me that after retiring she felt like she could finally set down her burdens and relax. It had been hard living incompletely for almost 30 years.

See, this amazing woman, this incredible leader, she had not been able to be her full self at work. She was gay, and in a time where that would at the least end your career. After retirement she had been able to get married to her long time girlfriend and settle on some land in her home state of Pennsylvania. She was doing advocacy work for women and LGBTQ vets, especially work around military sexual trauma. Mainly, she said, she just got to be herself.

The irony was that she was the same person she had always been. The leader she was at Fort Hood is the leader she is now. She had always been strong and passionate and kind. She was never allowed to be her full self while on duty, but she was always HER. And it showed.

And he was always he. He had no limits to how he could act or be perceived. He could (and did) have sex with subordinates without consequence, treat others imperiously, and generally be an asshole. It didn’t matter that he ended up at the same rank as she did. He did it in a truly terrible way. He was never genuine. He was always playing an angle. He could never be trusted. 

She was, is, and will always be a rock.

Integrity is sometimes thought of as honesty or forthrightness. That’s one definition. The one I prefer is that integrity refers to integration, to wholeness. It is about being fully who you are. She had integrity. Even when she was unable to share her true self, she never stopped being herself. And even though he had nothing to hide, he had no integrity.

Leaders lead with who they are. Good leaders are good people. And they do what they do by being who they are. Just like she did. 

The best compliment that anyone can give me is to tell me that the person that they meet is the same person they read. Integrity is as important to me as anything else in the world, and I learned that from her, and the time we spent together in the Cav. Thanks, ma’am. Always.

#4 - Accountability

Our family loves Pixar movies. The very first Pixar feature film, Toy Story, came out in 1995. That was the year I joined the Army, and that Barbara and I got married. Alex came a couple of years later, and since then we have had kids. A lot of ‘em. And we have watched Pixar movies. All of ‘em.

One of my favorites is A Bug’s Life. Like most Pixar movies, it is a great kid’s movie that is so much more, and reaches so much deeper. A Bug’s Life is the story of Flik, a young ant who seeks to save his colony from the bully grasshoppers by hiring mercenary bugs, only to mistakenly hire circus performers. 

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Hopper (the leader of the grasshoppers) confronts the young queen-in-training of the any colony, Princess Atta. Atta attempts to explain why the ants have not adequately prepared the annual “offering” for the grasshoppers. Hopper cuts her off, and delivers one of my favorite leadership lessons.

The first rule of leadership. Everything is your fault. 

One of the very best leaders I ever served with, LTG Russell Honore, used to say (and probably still does say) that leaders accept all the blame and share all the credit. When something goes right, *WE* did it. When something goes wrong *I* did it. I have seen him get full colonels to restart briefings if they started to blame anyone else when something went wrong. I have seen him kick brigade commanders out of meetings if he felt like they ducked responsibility. He drove home this simple rule. If you are in charge, be in charge.

Accountability is about taking responsibility. It is about accepting the burden that comes from being a leader. The thing that I think makes me the most disgusted with Donald Trump (and it is a very long list) is that he never accepts responsibility for ANYTHING. Ever. Even things that are clearly in his purview.

Leaders accept responsibility. They remember the first rule of leadership.

Everything is your fault. 

Accountability matters. 

#5 - Vision

Have you ever been in a sand storm? 

It is an otherworldly experience. I remember beating at Al Asad Airbase in Iraq in 2005. Our team was sitting in our offices at the base headquarters, doing whatever it was we were doing that day. Possibly watching American Idol. We did that. At some point someone came in and said “there’s a huge dust storm coming!” I had only recently come to the team, and I had not yet experienced one of the dust storms that Anbar province was apparently famous for. But everyone seemed really excited. So I grabbed my camera and followed everyone to the back of the HQ building.

Then I saw it. A wall of sand 100 feet high, crawling slowly toward the base. I took a couple of pictures.

It was surreal. It was like the wall from Game of Thrones. It was impossibly high and stretched as far as the horizon. Only, unlike that wall, it was moving. I asked one of the Marines what would happen when it got to us. “I am not sure,” he said, “No one has ever been crazy enough to stand out in it.” Ah. You clearly just met me.

I stayed out with my camera and took pictures as the storm began to overtake the base. At first it felt like a pretty normal wind storm. Then as the storm really kicked in the sand started. It felt like being wrapped in sandpaper and shaken. It stung fiercely.

And it kept getting darker and darker, the wind getting stronger and the sand heavier with each moment. For the last few pictures, I could barely stand, the camera shaking.

When I went back in the headquarters, there were a dozen Marines staring at me. I tried to shake some of the sand from my uniform. It was pretty hopeless. There was sand in places I didn’t know I had. The Marines were still staring.

Finally, the Lieutenant Colonel who was my team leader spoke. “You know, Marines frequently get a hard time for being crazy. I mean we all devoted ourselves to a service whose primary role in the military is to run onto beaches controlled by the enemy. We are crazy enough to run into machine gun fire. And none of us stood out there during that bullshit. Congratulations son. You are crazier than a bunch of Marines.” It was a very proud day for me.

Life is often like walking through a sandstorm. It is disorienting and confusing. The stress - like sand - comes from every direction and seeps into every crevice you have. The stress can surround you. You can be turned around and disoriented. You can feel lost and overwhelmed even in familiar spaces. 

What you don’t see in any of these pictures is the light coming from the door of the headquarters. Even when it all went black and shaky, there was a light. I knew where to go. I never got nervous because I always knew in which direction I was headed.

Hellen Keller once said that the only thing worse than being blind was having no vision. Good leaders are like that light - they shine and show the way, even in the midst of chaos and challenge and stress. Their vision lights the way.

You can have every other attribute on this list, but without vision you won’t get anywhere. Where are you going? Where are you leading others?

What makes your light shine?

Vision gives leaders meaning. It gives them significance. 

And it can even change the world.

I hope that this week’s 5 Things has helped you think more deeply about who you are as a leader, and who you hope to be in the future. 

As always, thank you for reading. Be well friends. If you are not a yet a subscriber and would like to get the 5 things (and a whole lot of other good stuff) during the week, I encourage you to become a subscriber. 

See you all soon. Keep pounding the rock.