Ten Skills Every Leader Needs
By Victor M. Parachin
Everyone leads someone, and every ministry demands leadership. Look at this inventory to see what you can add to your leadership skill set.
In 1812, when Napoleon invaded Russia, he was regarded across Europe as a brilliant, inspiring leader who enjoyed one success after another. His attack on Russia was viewed by many as another example of his military genius and bravado.
Opposing Napoleon was General Mikhail Kutuzov, an older man who was not well-known. Nothing about Kutuzov suggested he was up for the challenge of repelling Napoleon and his mighty force. Kutuzov was a veteran who lost an eye and suffered a serious head wound in battle. He drank too much and had a habit of falling asleep at state functions. It appeared the match between Napoleon and Kutuzov was most uneven.
As Napoleon’s army advanced, Kutuzov instructed his troops to keep falling back. That enticed Napoleon to move deeper and deeper into Russia, but further and further from his supply lines. Finally, as Kutuzov expected, a powerful ally intervened—the Russian winter. Napoleon and his army found themselves fighting, not Russian soldiers, but cold, wind, snow, ice, hunger, and fatigue. When the French troops finally reached the outskirts of Moscow—Napoleon’s obsessive goal—the city was empty. Kutuzov ordered everyone to leave and his soldiers set the city on fire. Napoleon had no option except to retreat back to his supply lines. At that moment, the skilled old general ordered his troops to attack, devastating Napoleon’s mighty army and saving Russia from France.
Kutuzov displayed extraordinary leadership skills. He anticipated events; he planned while being patient; he struck when the opportunity was optimum. Such leadership qualities, though distinctive, are present in each one of us. They often are dormant and inactive. We need simply to tap into them, develop them, and allow them to flourish.
Whether we are ordained ministers, Christian educators, or serve in other positions of spiritual leadership, we need to continually develop proficiency in leadership. Here are 10 essential skills common to leaders. By being aware of them, we can learn to nurture them in ourselves so that they expand and extend, impacting not only our lives, but the lives of those around us.
1. Leaders stand up for justice.
Consider the example of Moses, one of Israel’s greatest leaders. Although raised as a prince in Pharaoh’s household, he stood up for justice whenever he encountered wrongdoing.
Exodus 2 outlines three accounts of Moses responding to acts of injustice. In the first, an Egyptian was mercilessly beating an Israelite. Moses intervened, causing the death of the Egyptian (Exodus 2:11, 12). The second account took place a day later when two Israelites were fighting. Moses stepped in, hoping to make peace between them (Exodus 2:13, 14). The third incident tells of Moses’ arrival in Midian, where he saw several male shepherds mistreating a group of female shepherds. Moses defended the women and then remained to water their flock of sheep (Exodus 2:16, 17).
All of those incidents took place before Moses became the leader of the ancient Israelites. It is likely God chose him for that task because he was a leader who stood up for justice.
2. Leaders care about people.
There is a misconception that effective leaders bully and intimidate those around them. The truth is that the best leaders go out of their way to connect in a deep and caring way with people. They value and respect those who work with them. Leaders know that their success and their organization’s success depend on the goodwill of all involved.
U.S. Army General Norman Schwarzkopf skillfully and sincerely connected with his troops. In his autobiography, It Doesn’t Take a Hero, he tells of Christmas Day 1990 during the Persian Gulf War. He chose to spend his day among the men and women who were far away from their families.
Schwarzkopf writes of visiting the dining area made up of three huge mess hall tents:
At the first a long line of troops stretched out the entryway. I shook hands with everyone in the line, went behind the serving counter to greet the cooks and helpers, and worked my way through the mess hall, hitting every table, wishing everyone Merry Christmas. Then I went into the second and third dining facilities and did the same thing. I came back to the first mess tent and repeated the exercise, because by this time there was an entirely new set of faces. Then I sat down with some of the troops and had my dinner. In the course of four hours, I must have shaken 4,000 hands.
3. Leaders are trustworthy.
Leaders may have faults and weaknesses, and they may make mistakes and errors in judgment, but ultimately they are men and women of great character and integrity. They keep their word and follow through on commitments. “A fortune made by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a deadly snare,” writes the author of Proverbs 21:6.
Honest and trustworthy leaders are respected by others. General Schwarzkopf stresses the vital importance of character this way: “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without strategy.”
4. Leaders look out and look after others.
True leaders exhibit compassion and sensitivity for the plight of others. They don’t just look out for themselves. Rather, leaders use their power and influence to improve the lives of people who are less fortunate.
When Alan Reich broke his neck while driving at age 32, he neither retreated home nor plunged into advocacy. He simply went back to work using a wheelchair. Years later, when he began traveling in his job with the U.S. State Department, his concern for the disabled evolved. People with disabilities “are the most vulnerable, the most needy, the most discriminated against, in each society,” he said shortly before his death at age 75. “I felt I had a responsibility to do something.”
Using his experience and influence as a State Department executive, he helped found the National Organization on Disability, a nonprofit devoted to increasing the rights and participation of some 600 million disabled men, women, and children worldwide. Reich also persuaded the United Nations to declare its first International Year of Disabled Persons, aggressively promoted the Americans With Disabilities Act, and forced a redesign of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., to show the president in his wheelchair.
5. Leaders are visionary.
Their focus is not so narrow that they lose sight of the bigger picture. They are able to see and respond to new paradigms that are emerging and evolving.
In 1975, Theodore Levitt wrote what has become a classic paper in leadership studies. Published in the Harvard Business Review, Levitt accurately noted, “The railroads did not stop growing because the need for passenger and freight transportation declined. That grew. The railroads are in trouble today not because the need was filled by others (cars, trucks, airplanes, even telephones), but because it was not filled by the railroads themselves. They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather in the transportation business.”
6. Leaders believe in themselves.
When he was 70 years old, legendary baseball player Ty Cobb was asked, “What do you think you’d hit if you were playing these days?”
Cobb, who had an impressive lifetime batting average of .367, responded: “About .290, maybe .300.”
The reporter then said: “That’s because of the travel, the night games, and all the new pitches like the slider, right?”
“No,” said Cobb, “it’s because I am 70!”
7. Leaders take risks.
Leaders don’t shy away from new options and opportunities. Leaders are open and willing to take risks.
At one time or another, every successful person has responded favorably to questions, such as these: “Have you ever considered . . . ?” “Could you be persuaded to . . . ?” “Would you be willing to look at . . . ?” “Would you be interested in exploring . . . ?”
8. Leaders follow their own voice.
Too many people find their dreams dashed when others respond negatively to them. On the other hand, leaders listen and follow their own inner voice.
Consider the example of Wing Lam. In a book compiled by Steven E. and Lee Beard and published in 2003, Wake Up . . . Live the Life You Love, he tells this story:
Fourteen years ago, I set a goal to start a restaurant that extended from my home. I imagined having friends over for a big party and serving delicious food. My vision was to create a playful environment so that, when the patrons left, they would tell their friends about it and visit again. When I began devising this plan, people told me I was crazy and that it would never work. They were wrong. Fourteen years ago, I started Wahoo’s Fish Taco and now own 28 locations with nearly 500 employees.
According to the Wahoo’s website, the chain has continued to grow, with more than 50 locations today.
9. Leaders take action.
Those who lead effectively seldom suffer from the paralysis of analysis.
Charles Foster, PhD, director of the Chestnut Hill Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, studied leaders and concludes they know that “action is better than inaction. Great decision makers may look before they leap, but they do leap. I expected more delaying tactics among the best decision makers than I found. But they understand that postponing, delaying, avoiding is not good for anyone.”
10. Leaders learn from their mistakes.
Even the best of leaders make mistakes, sometimes many of them. However, they learn from their mistakes. That way, those errors become the raw material that results in greater, stronger leadership.
Syndicated medical columnist Peter Gott, MD, tells of referring patients to an ear, nose, and throat specialist. Although the specialist was a highly qualified professional, the referred patients often returned to Gott complaining that the specialist was brusque, indifferent, and rarely spent more than a few minutes with them.
The specialist subsequently became very ill and needed extensive surgery and a lengthy recuperation. When he returned to work on a part-time basis, there was a discernable change in his personality. Now patients Dr. Gott referred to him began to return to Gott and thank him, saying they had “never met a doctor so sensitive and sympathetic.” The specialist sometimes spent 30 minutes explaining afflictions and treatment to his patients.
When Gott asked the specialist about his new attitude, the physician explained that before he became a patient, he believed being a good doctor was synonymous with being a good technician. After his own surgery, he realized how much patients need warmth and understanding along with technical skills.
The lesson from his story is a fundamental one: all people will make mistakes, but the wise ones learn and grow from them.
Victor Parachin is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), an author, and a freelance journalist living in Tulsa, Oklahoma.