Expert Marketer Magazine
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The Most Important Leadership Decision

by William A. CohenAugust 2015

Peter Drucker, “the Father of Modern Management,” told us that the first and most important leadership decision is the decision to become a leader. Like many of Drucker’s quotes cited out of context, this one sounds self-evident, overly simplified, and even a trifle absurd. The truth is that it is profoundly true and important.

For someone who has never been a leader previously, acceptance of the responsibilities of a leader is frequently not an easy decision to make. Many fear the responsibility and the authority. They fear something going wrong, they fear being blamed for actions which they do not think fully under their control, they fear that followers will not follow and they fear making the wrong decision. They are afraid of the embarrassment and penalties of failure. Some who have the capability of becoming great leaders never accept the challenge. They go through life with a fear that limits the success they could achieve and contributions they might make by helping others.

No One is Born to Leadership

Everyone starts equally as would-be leaders and faces these fears of the responsibility, authority, and the unknown. This is true regardless of age. Mary Kay Ash built the billion dollar Mary Kay Cosmetics corporation, beginning with only $5000. When she was only three years old her father was invalided with tuberculosis and couldn’t take care of himself. Her mother went to work to support the family. Mary Kay accepted the responsibilities for cleaning, cooking and caring for her father. She accepted the responsibility and had the authority for domestic decisions and ran the household during the day. She made the decision to be a leader before she even knew what leadership was and when she was still a child. The lessons she learned helped her to reach her full potential. Even the tragedy of being forced to care for a parent as a teenager or younger has frequently resulted in someone appearing to be a “natural leader” somewhat later in life.

Others May Also be Forced Make “Drucker’s Leadership Decision”

Alvin C. York was raised in the backwoods of Tennessee and he became an expert rifleman. Until he met his future wife and became religious he was a heavy drinker and trouble maker. No one noticed anything particularly unusual about him when he was drafted into the Army for service during World War I. That is, until he filed to avoid military service as a conscientious objector. His company commander convinced him that his country needed him and to remain in the Army. York withdrew a request to avoid service and went overseas to France with his unit. The needs of his fellow soldiers forced him into a leadership role. His success was recognized and he was promoted to the rank of corporal.

On October 18th, 1918 he was sent on a patrol in the Argonne Forest with sixteen other men under the command of a sergeant. The patrol managed to surprise a German headquarters and took several prisoners. As the patrol moved on, they stumbled on a hidden nest of enemy machine-guns which opened fire with deadly effectiveness. Only York and seven privates survived the first volley of enemy fire. They faced an entire machine-gun battalion consisting of several hundred enemy soldiers. York had little leadership training. He was a young corporal with seven others in a very perilous situation.

Some with York wanted to surrender, but they agreed to follow a plan he suggested first.  They would remain concealed and would only fire when they would not reveal their position. York would keep the enemy battalion at bay by sniping until night came and they could escape.  So skillfully did York shot, and so accurate was his rifle fire, that his opponents suffered numerous casualties as York maneuvered around the area, rarely even seen by his adversaries. At one time an entire enemy squad of a dozen infantrymen attacked his position. He shot every single one. The enemy commander became convinced that he was under attack by a far superior force which he could not see. He was continually suffering casualties and seemingly could do little to defend his men. Finally, he raised the white flag and surrendered. Before the end of the day, and with only seven fellow Americans, York and his patrol had captured 132 prisoners, including three officers.

The Supreme Allied Commander, the French Marshall Ferdinand Foch had been at war for four years. He was aware of the daily actions of millions of men in battle. He saw hundreds of situations where courageous leaders performed heroic deeds under fire. Yet, Foch called York’s feat the greatest individual action of the war. General Pershing, the overall American commander, immediately promoted York to Sergeant and recommended him for the Congressional Medal of Honor. This is America’s highest decoration for valor, and Sergeant York received it shortly thereafter.

After the war, York returned to Tennessee. He married his girlfriend and became a farmer. He turned down all offers to use his name for profit saying, “This uniform isn’t for sale.” However he did allow a movie of his life to be made, and he used the proceeds to establish schools for poor mountain children. The movie won an Oscar for Gary Cooper as “Best Actor,” and it was nominated in nine other categories including “Best Picture.” During World War II York, as a colonel, commanded a regiment of the Tennessee National Guard.

Not only in Battle

But sudden leadership responsibilities don’t only occur in battle. Jonathan Avery was a human resource manager of 45 years of age who worked for an aerospace company. Many times he had been asked if he were interested in management responsibilities. However, like so many others he had never in his life been in a position of leadership and he was doing well as a human resources specialist. He declined. One day things got desperate when a much younger team leader became seriously ill and had to go on an extended leave of absence. With promises from his boss of help if needed, he agreed to his being acting department manager. As so many others who have made the leader decision, being a leader is definitely doable once you get into it and do your best. Moreover the fact that he was such a good human resources specialist enabled him to provide better than average help and guidance to his team. With the guidance of his boss he mastered the challenge and by the time the permanent manager returned, he was immediately promoted to a position with permanent leadership responsibilities. “If I hadn’t been forced by the situation, and persuaded by my manager, I would never have even tried such a thing,” he told me.

A Boy’s Story

Some years ago a 13-year old boy had joined the boy scouts. He had always been an introvert and very shy. Moreover, an early childhood disease had left him thin and weak. He had never been a leader. His scout troop announced a contest to see who could master the most scouting skills during a six month period. The boy applied himself and won the contest. Then the boy’s father was transferred to Texas. In this new town, the one troop where it seemed most likely where he would fit in hadn’t been doing very well. However, the troop had a new Scoutmaster and he had plans to rebuild the troop. This Scout troop had two patrols with about a dozen members in each, but one had recently lost its patrol leader. The Scoutmaster told this boy that he wanted him to be patrol leader because of the scouting skills he had mastered. The boy had all the normal fears which I described earlier and he declined. Only when the Scoutmaster promised to help him if he ran into problems did he accept and make the decision which Drucker said was the most important. The boy worked hard and found that he liked being a leader. Moreover in every competition between the two patrols, his patrol was judged best. In a statewide competition, with many patrols, his patrol again won awards. A year later the Scoutmaster appointed him Senior Patrol Leader, responsible for both patrols.

I know about this boy intimately, because I was he. While I refined my leadership skills considerably later in high school, at West Point, in the Air Force, and in civilian organizations which I led, without that Scoutmaster’s help in persuading me to make “Drucker’s decision on leadership” my life would have taken an entirely different course.

If you have a subordinate who hasn’t yet made this most important of leadership decisions, you can help him or her to do so by:

·        Building self-confidence by assigning small, short-term leadership tasks

·        Providing assistance and mentorship as the new leader develops, typically by making mistakes

·        Giving encouragement and inspiration

If you are yourself someone who has not yet made Drucker’s leadership decision, I recommend you take the plunge. Just making the decision that you will be a leader in itself will help you to become one. 

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