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Getty Deeds not words, and actions not maxims, drive a team forward to success.

First Rule of Leadership: Don’t Talk About Leadership

Dec. 8, 2019
Real leaders don’t talk about leadership. Real leaders do leadership.

We’ve have all heard the person that speaks incredible advice on team leadership, recites maxims about enabling employees, and then in practice — when leadership is critical — fails horribly to lead even by the most fundamental measures. From Army generals to U.S. government officials, to CEOs and non-profit executives, too many people talk a great leadership game but fall short of even the most basic expectations.

Everyone can point to speeches by or stories about “great” leaders, but being a leader demands more than motivational quotes from General Patton. Leaders who care about leading start with humility, compassion, and a focus on results. They adopt the mind of a teacher and the ethics of a child. They show a lack of fear to make difficult decisions, and a dedication to promote the team’s results over their own career aspirations.

True leaders exercise their roles by modeling respect, achieving goals, innovating, improving, serving customers, teaching, and preparing people for more and greater challenges. A leader focuses on action, open discussion, front-line presence, and proof of results. Anytime a leader is celebrated more than those he leads, and anytime a leader creates a cult of his own infallible behavior, there will be trouble and inconsistency in the organization he “leads.”

Lead with humility. Humility is the constant and consistent recognition that you do not have all the information or means to solve every problem of the organization on your own. A leader recognizes that others are essential to success. A leader’s determination to explore, analyze, and improve a situation using others’ insight and contributions will drive success. How he handles mistakes in front of the team is a key leadership exercise. A leader that understands and learns from mistakes in front of the group shows humility and honesty, as well as a fearlessness that allows an organization to move forward.

Lead with proof. Leaders that present open proof and clear evidence create waves of commitment in their organizations. Evidence-based leaders drive commitment because they are honest and transparent about the results they want to achieve, and how those achievements will be calculated. Leaders show their results to the entire team, challenging even the most hardened skeptics. Leaders who offer proof also are more open to initiative, knowing that the value of effort is in the evidence.

Lead without fear. Fear is the key element that destroys organizations, initiatives, and people. Teams that are afraid will not act, will not innovate, and will not learn, because they are terrified of failure.

Great leaders know that stasis, not action, is what organizations need to fear. Leaders work themselves and their teams past fear because success comes when fear of the unknown, fear of the competition, and fear of failure are discarded and the potential of success is embraced. In my time training in the U.S. Army, we were punished for being afraid and not taking decisive action. Leaders that live in fear of failure paralyze themselves and their teams.

Lead to create. A leader leads in order to create. The process of creating is the effort of solving problems for people, products, and services. The creative process finds success in people, concepts, innovations, and locations where others see only past failure, prospective failure, or a cloud of indecision. A focus on creation drives a leader to find problems and propose (and then enable) solutions to solve the problem. Most important, creativity is an action; it involves resolute steps over perfect analysis and intellectual effort.

Lead to change. Change is the activity an organization undertakes as critical factors transform over time. Every organization must change and continue to change to ensure it can continue to execute its primary purpose successfully. Leading to change is the process of aligning the businesses purpose with new requirements, consumer demands, competitive factors, cost factors, employee talent, and cultural issues, to ensure that the organization can execute its purpose successfully.

Lead each person. Leadership is the process applying talents, techniques, and skills to bring an organization toward defined goals. Leadership is a group activity that must be exercised toward the styles, feelings, and necessity of an individual on the team. A leader reaches and interacts with each team member according to their styles, to create an environment in which all team members believe they are appreciated and necessary to achieve the organization’s goals. Always lead each person as an individual according to each person’s needs. People are unique, not material to be placed in a leadership “machine.”

Lead for today.  No leadership position is guaranteed. Never. Leaders must lead for today, improve for today, and make others better for today. Keeping the focus on leading in the present forces a leader to be present for the team and the problems bearing down on the organization. Leading for today also drives a leader to be an immediate problem-solver, because he may not be present tomorrow to fix the problem. When you recognize you may not be present tomorrow, you are freed to enable, teach, and drive the team to reach what is possible today.

Real leaders don’t talk leadership. Real leaders do leadership. The best leaders impact an organization by adopting a humble approach, using proof to excite the team, leading without fear, creating something new, changing the organization to create success, focusing on each person’s unique needs, and concentrating on accomplishments for today. Deeds not words, and actions not maxims, drive a team forward to success.
Chad Storlie is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel with 20+ years of active duty and reserve service in infantry, Special Forces, and joint headquarters units. He is an adjunct Professor of Marketing at Flagler College, a mid-level B2B marketing executive, and a widely published author on leadership, business, military and technology topics. Contact him at [email protected], or visit