Imagine the following scenario. A young man or woman turns 16 and decides it is time to get their driver’s license. They have never driven a car. Their neighbor owns a manual transmission vehicle, and they convince that neighbor to take them to the local DMV to take the driving test, in that car. The birthday boy or girl waits in line, presents their paperwork, and attempts the driving test.
Given the above scenario, if I were to tell you that this person failed miserably, would you be surprised? Of course not, they don’t know how to drive a car. They have no experience, no practice, and are wholly unprepared. If I asked for your thoughts on their approach to the test, most would say it was irresponsible, and the outcome predictable.
If you want to be successful in that environment, you find someone to teach you. You find someone with experience to sit in the car with you. That person explains how a vehicle works, what the buttons and levers do, how to turn it on, etc. You learn the basics in a controlled environment, generally a parking lot. You pull from, and draft off of the experienced individual sitting next to you, until you develop some of your own. After you have mastered the parking lot, you drive “simple” roads, progressing towards complicated situations on the freeway. If you encounter a situation beyond your experience or skill, there is an individual riding shotgun, ready and able to help. Only once you have achieved the requisite skill and experience are you allowed to take the driving test, and only once you demonstrate your ability to a third party are you granted a professional license to operate the vehicle on your own.
It is a logical, controlled approach to gaining experience, and I almost never see it applied to the most important professional license of them all, Leadership.
If I had to pick one word that describes the leadership style of the SEAL Teams, it would be mentorship. We pair the most junior personnel with the most senior and experienced, and do our best to shepherd them through the phase where they are a danger to themselves, and those around them. When I checked in to my first team and was assigned to an operational element, my first job was secondary communicator. Essentially, I was responsible for my radio, which was merely a backup for the primary communicator. Looking back, it was an incredibly simple job. In that moment, it seemed like a daunting task. Through the help of others, practice, and time, I slowly became an asset to the team, not a liability. I was not shot gunned with a test, I slowly prepared for it. This is the approach that needs to be taken with leadership.
If you wait until you achieve a “leadership position,” be that a job title, acronym on a business card, or rank to start acting like a leader, don’t be surprised if you struggle and fail. You will fail for the same reason the inexperienced driver is not able to pass the driving test, you don’t know what you are doing. Just like in a vehicle, those around you will pay the price. The failure will be your fault, not the situations you are presented with, and not the people that work for you.
There are leadership positions and there are leaders, don’t confuse the two. Sometimes they coexist, often they do not.
The reality is that you may never achieve the leadership position you want. The world is not fair, and it is possible that the stars may never align to provide you the opportunity. If the opportunity does present itself, you need to seize it immediately. You need to be prepared, and ready to strike. The time to begin that preparation is now, today.
Leadership has nothing to do with title, rank, or position, and everything to do with how you conduct yourself. You lead with your actions, not with your words. Being a leader has nothing to do with being the smartest person in the room. The best leaders I had the privilege to serve with made no attempt to outsmart anyone. Instead, they identified their weaknesses and staffed them with people who were more capable than themselves. The worst leaders, and believe me, there are some terrible leaders in the SEAL Teams, refused to solicit and consider input because they were certain of their own genius, and were singularly concerned with “them,” not the people who worked for them, or the team.
Leadership is about pulling people up the ladder, not putting your feet on the heads of those below you to secure your position on a rung. Don’t be that person.
If you don’t have the title you want yet, act like you do. Lead by the example you set. Prepare yourself for the future, or suffer the consequences when it arrives.
If there is a downside to setting the example, I am not aware of it. Once you start thinking like a leader, you will realize that your actions have an impact on those around you. You will also realize that everyone is watching, all the time. It will cause you to consider your actions, in every situation, before making snap decisions. It will cause you to consider your words, and choose them wisely. It will cause you to become aware of your emotions, and their impact on your decision-making ability. It will improve your character, and positively influence the world around you, something that I think we can all agree is desperately needed in this day and age.
It is simple, but far from easy. I fail at it every day. There is not a single day that goes by that I don’t look back and see room for improvement. It may be an action I took, a decision I made, or the tone of voice I had when one of my children did something frustrating. It is a marathon, not a sprint.
Leadership and the driving test are relatively simple, if you have the experience. If you arrive at test day without it, don’t be surprised by the outcome. No one can gift you the experience you need, it can only be earned over time, and no one is going to make you do it.
It’s on you. Who do you want to see looking back in the mirror?