What It Takes To Be a Leader

Ask yourself 10 questions if you think you'd like to be the boss

by Joe Conklin

Could I become a CEO? I asked myself that early in my quality career. Gradually the question generalized: Could I become an executive? A supervisor? A leader on the job?

Analyzing the style of bosses I have had and the opportunities I have received to run this or that, I have concluded the answer depends on rigorous self-examination.

This leads to another question: What should I be asking? Nearly 20 years into my career I have accumulated the following list. With time it grows longer.

1. How much do I like my job? Out of today's followers come tomorrow's leaders. A happy leader might come from an unhappy follower, but the odds are against it.

2. How often do I have to repeat myself? This is related to doing things right the first time. Time is always at a premium. The less I have to re-explain things, the more my people and I can accomplish. Good communicators and good leaders go hand in hand.

3. How do I respond to failure? Success is great, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. However, I spend less time enjoying it than preparing and struggling for it. The leaders get the questions no one has answered yet. The first try seldom succeeds.

4. How well do I put up with second guessing? The higher up in the organization you are, the more people there are who are convinced they have a better answer than you do. More often than not they do not know the whole story about a given situation. Ignoring this reality is perilous. Sometimes, to your own dismay, they are right. Ignoring their right answers is even more perilous.

5. How early do I ask questions when making a decision? The earlier I ask questions, the more people believe I sincerely desire their input. Wait too long and I end up with what they think I want to hear. It's not the lies so much that sink me; it's the information people inadvertently withhold out of fear of embarrassment or reprisal.

6. How often do I say, "Thank you"? There is also a more challenging form of this question. I imagine two people cross my path at the same time. One holds the promise of helping me in the future, and the other does not. Which one do I thank first? The answer tells me something about myself, and I do not always like what I see.

7. Do I tend to favor a loose or strict interpretation of the rules? Know your preferred style. Loose tends to carry more risk. Consider asking a lot of questions first. The temptation with strict is to use it as a substitute for thinking. Consider letting others challenge your assumptions. If you prefer to avoid interpreting, you are probably uncomfortable with decisions. The front office is not for you.

8. Can I tell an obstacle from an excuse? I need a high success rate on this one to be an effective leader. Very often I find it hard to tell the difference. Accept an excuse and I miss opportunities. Refuse to acknowledge an obstacle and I try to make my people do the impossible. The consequences of either are not pretty.

9. Is respect enough? I can't spend all the money, give all the time or grant all the favors people believe are their due. While it's good to be liked, I have more peace of mind if I settle for being considered fair.

10. Have I dispensed with feeling indispensable? It's better to have a life than to be indispensable. Sometimes no matter who is in charge, the options don't change. So who makes the decision is less important than how the decision is made.

The last question is, "Do I love strawberries more than oak trees?" Strawberries bloom in a short time and taste sweet. Acorns have no taste and take years to grow. It helps when a leader loves a little of both.

JOSEPH D. CONKLIN is a statistician with the U.S. Census Bureau, designing sampling plans for assessing the quality of Census 2000 operations. He coordinated development of the information system to track the quality of printed census forms. Conklin earned a master's degree in statistics from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and holds the following ASQ certifications: quality engineer, reliability engineer, quality auditor, quality manager and software quality engineer.

If you would like to comment on this article, please post your remarks on the Quality Progress Discussion Board, or e-mail them to editor@asq.org.

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