On Leadership

Leadership is like wine. A good wine needs good grape variety, good soil, good climate, good handling, and proper aging. Nevertheless, every vintage is different, and the taste depends on the food pairing. At the end of the process you know good wine when you taste it; but what one individual likes might not be as palatable to another. For leaders to develop they must have some inherent talents and learn some necessary skills. They need to operate in a nurturing climate, and they need experience. Leadership styles vary, and success is often based on the setting and how individuals receive and react to certain leadership tactics.

Georgia Tech is blessed with extraordinary human capital of significant leadership potential. We are constantly developing programs to nurture students’ leadership. I am pleased to announce that we just selected the first cohort of 16 faculty who will participate in a new nine-month Emerging Leaders Program. Starting in the fall, these faculty members will participate in workshops, small-team teamwork, as well as self- and 360-degree assessments.

There are as many books written about leadership as there are successful or self-proclaimed leaders. Some are insightful and good, while many more are self-important and border on sounding like religion. In these comments I hope to avoid falling into those traps as I describe characteristics of leaders I admire. 

Conviction and Commitment: To be able to lead, individuals must believe in and love what they are doing, and be completely dedicated to the enterprise’s success. That level of conviction and commitment inevitably leads to conflicts with life balance. While many of those conflicts are manageable, we are all human, and many times those conflicts are unavoidable.

Integrity and Honesty: The best leaders always have a group of inviolable principles — ideals that they will not compromise. Integrity and honesty must be among them. It sounds trite and obvious, but it is not. First, there are many so-called leaders for whom the end justifies the means — all the time. Second, all leaders will face temptations or difficult decisions where the “right” and the “wrong” are not always clear. Using a concept introduced by Georgia Tech alum Bill George, successful leader and author, it is vital to develop an inner compass that helps us find our “true North.”

Vision: Yes, all the talk about vision is true. The best leaders always look beyond the horizon and imagine what their enterprise should be; they go beyond maintaining or incrementally improving the enterprise’s current state. There are good managers and good leaders. You need them both, and at times you find them in the same individual. In my opinion, though, management without the visionary element will lead to stagnation and ultimate failure.

Ability to handle ambiguity: Years ago I heard a great leader, Václav Havel — leader of the Velvet Revolution, last president of Czechoslovakia and first president of the Czech Republic, writer, poet, and playwright — talk about the “Myth of Objectivism.” Nothing is ever completely clear or obvious. A good leader must feel comfortable with making decisions fraught with uncertainty and hence willing to accept sporadic failures.

Empathy: It is terribly important for leaders to respect and try to understand the mindset of everyone they lead.

Comfort with empowering and delegating: No one makes it alone. Identifying key collaborative colleagues and empowering them is crucial for successful leadership. Identifying them is difficult and requires experience, as well as the study and understanding of human behavior. Underlying it all is the absolute need to respect each and every one of these individuals. So-called leaders who are abusive, disrespectful, intolerant, and dishonest are nothing but bores and bullies who sooner or later fall on their own sword.

In their book “The Innovator’s DNA,” authors Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen identify associative thinking as the overarching cognitive skill of innovators. I believe leaders must also be innovators and place high value on the innovative skills of others. Associative thinking refers to the ability to cross disciplines, observe, network, and learn from people, problems, and fields that on the surface may look different to you. That cross-pollination is what leads to breakthroughs.

Service: The best leaders are the ones who can forget the “I” and talk about the “us." Poor leaders reflect and build only on their own accomplishments and fail to realize that they rely on the efforts and intelligence of many, whose ideas they typically usurp and do not properly credit. This type of self-centered leader forgets that what matters is the organization’s success. In doing so, these kinds of leaders cut short their own path to achieving their maximum potential.

Emotional Intelligence as a term first appeared in a 1964 paper by Michael Beldoch and was popularized by Daniel Goleman in his 1995 bestselling book, “Emotional Intelligence.” It is the most ephemeral and abstract characteristic of the best leaders and the hardest to acquire and learn. The best way I can describe it is as that sixth sense that allows you to connect at the appropriate level at the right time. 

Anyone can be a leader in his or her own realm. Many are naturals; most of us need to work at it through study, observation, and practice.  We had great interest in the Emerging Leaders Program that bodes well for the future of leadership at Georgia Tech. I thank the first cohort for their interest and look forward to their feedback!

- Rafael L. Bras

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