The journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step. ~Lao Tzu
To say that the road to becoming an effective leader is long and difficult is an understatement and definitely not for the faint of heart. And those who have travelled this road also know that it doesn’t end, it’s definitely a journey and not a destination.
There are many characteristics and capabilities that an individual must either posses or develop to become an effective leader and there are numerous books and articles claiming to describe these critical leadership “must haves”. And there is no leader, no matter how far along the road, who possesses all these characteristics. All leaders are, in one form or another, flawed and lacking, yet they can still be effective, but never perfect.
However, there is one thing that all of those desiring to travel the road to leadership must have, and it is actually what allows them to take that important first step.
That one thing is an understanding that leadership is all about CHOICE and the courage and capability to make difficult choices. Making a choice between two rights or between right and wrong is easy, even a child can do it successfully. But real leadership becomes apparent when we must make choices between two wrongs (by wrong I mean choices that have negative consequences yet cannot be avoided).
Let me give you an example from the classical Greek mythical poem, the Odyssey, often attributed to the ancient scholar, Homer. The poem mainly focuses on the Greek hero Odysseus (known as Ulysses in Roman myths), king of Ithaca, and his journey home after the fall of Troy. It takes Odysseus ten years to reach Ithaca after the ten-year Trojan War, and along the way he and his crew face numerous hardships.
One of those hardships is that he must sail between two great perils, Scylla, a dangerous outcrop of jagged rocks and shallows, and Charybdis, a huge whirlpool. These two dangers lay between the west coast of Italy and the island of Sicily in a narrow passage called the Strait of Messina. To reach his home in Ithaca, Odysseus had to choose between sailing close to the rocky shoals or the whirlpool. Either choice meant loss of life and there was no turning back or going around. Choice Time!
Now more than ever business, government, military, religious and social leaders face unavoidable perils. It comes with the territory, although it seems like in the 21st Century the territory is even more hostile than before. Threats of terrorism, social unrest, disruptive technology, mass migration and unstoppable immigration, employee disengagement, widening gaps between the rich and poor, competition coming from nontraditional players, economic slowdowns and rising debt levels are just a few. The list of perils, and therefore the number of choices a leader must make, are endless.
If nothing else, effective leadership is about choice.
Making hard choices and living with the consequences. And by the way, not making a choice is actually the worst choice of all.
Effective leadership means learning to live with unpleasant choices, making the best choice possible, learning how to see and deliver the best possible outcome from those choices, and staying optimistic in the face of ever more difficult choices.
Want to grow more leaders? Then put your up-and-coming talented young men and women into situations where they must make, and live with, hard choices.
Making good choices comes from experience, and experience mostly comes from bad choices.
Written and Posted by: John R. Childress
Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid
John also writes thriller novels!