In 2000’s U571, Harvey Keitel’s character Klough offers some critical advice to Matthew McConaughey’s character, Tyler, on the nature of being Captain…and Leader.
“The skipper always knows what to do, whether he does or not.” The Chief’s powerful message is a life or death admonition for a newly appointed captain leading a stressed submarine crew. The message rings true for those dealing with life or death decisions on a daily basis as well as those leading teams in less critical, but still demanding situations.
A Light in the Darkness
The leader is a beacon. A force. Positions of leadership can be naturally endowed with a certain respect, admiration, and possibly a combination of fear and awe. Positional leadership of this sort can be powerful. However, the respect attributed to a position of leadership can quickly be lost if we seem hesitant, overwhelmed, or incapable.
Earned leadership occurs when we demonstrate traits worth following regardless of our position. Positional leaders must earn the respect of their team to be effective. To be named Captain is one thing. To earn that title, and the loyalty of your team, is something entirely different.
Finding a Way
Is the Chief suggesting that a captain needs to be something less than authentic? No. He is telling us that we have to find a way. To lead is to move your team forward even when you don’t have all of the answers. And you will never have all of the answers. How are you helping move your team forward?
In the case of U571, the new Captain is paralyzed by doubt. He realizes that he does not have all of the answers and he shows it to his crew. The effect is two-fold. Loss of confidence by the crew as well as no forward progress. How often do we see this in the real world?
Lonely at the Top
Hiring decisions. Purchasing decisions. Financial decisions. Lacking a crystal ball, we have to make a call with less than perfect information. Hidden within the Chief’s message was another one: it is lonely at the top. When you assume the mantle of responsibility, there are burdens that you, and you alone, must bear. Whether you are a Surgeon or a CEO, there will be decisions that only you can make. The corollary is that there will be consequences that only you will bear.
For those not in positions of leadership, it is easy to underestimate the burdens. That is because the best leaders insulate them from the burdens. If you’ve chosen the path of leadership, this element is important to remember. You’re job is to be resolute. Decisive. This doesn’t mean that you don’t change your mind with new facts. It means you have to make the call demanded in the moment. Then move on to the next one.
How seriously do we take our role as leader? Do we comprehend the true power endowed to our position? Do we understand the difference we can make to those around us by exhibiting leadership whether we have positional responsibility or not? By it’s very nature, leadership is about people. Helping them be the best they can be moment by moment. Coaches, teachers, managers, supervisors, executives, and even peers are endowed with this power if they chose to accept it. To make a difference is to lead and it can be a fearsome responsibility.
It can also be an incredibly fulfilling experience. It is the edge along which we discover the true extent of our capabilities as a human being and make our mark on the world. So, lead away. Whether you have the answers or not.