Leaders Light Fires

Leaders Light Fires

You get the best efforts from others not by lighting a fire beneath them, but by building a fire within.

Bob Nelson

At some point (if not already), every one of us will be called upon to lead in some capacity. What makes good leaders, and how can we become better leaders?

Former British Prime Minister and leadership quote machine, Winston Churchill prepared all his life for the times when he’d be called to leadership. I was asked to research Churchill for a project and describe what I thought were his three most important leadership qualities. I've repurposed that project here with three actionable tips that you can put into practice now so you’ll be ready—capable and confident—when your leadership moments arrive.

Communication is paramount.

To be a good leader, you have to be a good communicator. Accepting the London Sunday Times Literary Award in 1949, Churchill said, “Broadly speaking, short words are best, and the old words, when short, are best of all.” What Churchill was essentially articulating was his disdain for passive, long-winded language, especially in the service of political correctness. Churchill didn’t exactly believe in being subtle. 

Like Churchill, a good leader is direct and precise. So lay out a plan, give specific directions, and let your team prove the rightness of your decisions. If you’ve communicated clearly, you don’t need to be a micromanager. Remember, people want to know what's expected of them. Don’t assume that everyone just knows what's expected; that’s a recipe for ineffectiveness.

You don’t have to be perfect.

...or, as Churchill put it: “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”

This one's pretty obvious. As a leader, you’re going to fail...a lot. Achieving success is going to be hard; build that into your expectations. 

Fortunately, no one expects perfection from leaders. Instead, what people want is confidence and the ability to pragmatically cobble together a plan most likely to succeed based on the information available. If it doesn’t work, something is always learned that the leader can apply to the next effort.

We’ve all heard the stories of people we admire and how they overcame their failures:

  • Walt Disney was fired because he “lacked imagination.”
  • Oprah was moved out of a TV news anchor job.
  • Steve Jobs was kicked out of his own company.
  • Tom Brady lost his starting job in college to a freshman!

Churchill wasn’t immune to failure, either. While serving as the British Secretary of the Navy during World War I, he led the Navy into an ill-advised battle along the Turkish coast at Gallipoli. The engagement resulted in mass casualties and was an embarrassing episode for Britain. Churchill was unceremoniously ousted from his position and excommunicated from the war effort. 

Clearly, their failures were catalysts for change and eventual achievement in these individuals' lives. So don’t be afraid to fail, even as you always plan for success. Treat failure for what it is: an education. Whether it’s about organization, market demand, or work ethic, every failure is a lesson.

And finally...

Fortitude is the way forward.

Churchill had this to say about the ability to just keep moving forward in spite of everything: “If you're going through hell, keep going!” That’s Winston at his most succinct.

Don’t expect any project to be easy. Never expect everything to go according to plan. Be prepared to buckle down and push forward no matter what. If you adopt this habit, then, when times are hard, others will follow you—forward.

Remember, to become a better leader, communicate clearly and directly, don’t be afraid to fail and try again, and just keep pushing forward. I hope you found these tips instructive. Now, remember Churchill and go out there and put them to work for you!

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