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Lessons In Leadership

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Summer is a time of transition for many. Thousands of college students are graduating and migrating to the world of work, and for some, ultimately, to positions of leadership. In the weeks ahead, organizations, such as our industry’s field organization, will be electing new teams of leadership for the coming year. It brings to mind one of my own transitions–from military to civilian life after World War II–and a time when I wondered if my wartime experience would be helpful in a civilian career. As it turned out much of what I learned in the Army Air Corps proved to be useful in later life.

There is one particular experience that I remember well and have tried to keep alive over the years. In 1943 I was sent to Randolph Field, then known as the “West Point of the Air,” where I attended a course in leadership. Among the sessions I attended, the most memorable was conducted by a flight surgeon from Randolph Field’s School of Applied Medicine whose subject was the qualities of leadership. Three lessons from that course stand out in my memory.

First Lesson: “Don’t be down on what you are not up on.”

This is not just a matter of boning up on facts and figures or otherwise doing your homework. Rather it relates to the importance of being sure of your position before being critical of things present. Too often people arrive at a top leadership post assuming that not much of importance had happened prior to their arrival. Worse yet, they sometimes jump to the conclusion that everything previously done was wrong. Of course, as my instructor pointed out, sometimes it is true, but it should not be an automatic assumption. He stressed the importance of learning to “walk around a problem,” looking at it from all sides and perspectives before reaching a conclusion or changing course.

Failure to consider all aspects of a situation can lead to a collision of objectives. Low taxes and good schools may be in direct conflict. Downsizing can collide with customer service, resulting in short-term gains being offset by long-term loss of customer loyalty. Too often the solution to today’s problems limits our view to a short-term exigency without consideration of the more important long-term consequence. Cutbacks in recruiting and training are outstanding examples in our business.

Second Lesson: “Never tear down a fence until you know why it was put there.”

This lesson emphasizes the importance of corporate memory. A successful Canadian mail order house decided to expand into retail outlets and soon spread them across Canada. Years later the executives and board of the company concluded that the mail order business was not profitable and so they sold it. No one remembered that all of the overhead from their expansion had been borne by the mail order division and the lack of profit resulted from absorbing costs that should have been charged to the retail outlets. Belatedly they learned that the fence they tore down was their most profitable operation.

Nowhere is corporate memory more important than in association management. Associations typically have a new leader and a new board every year. In just a few years most associations have a complete turnover of their boards, differing from normal corporate settings which often keep their board intact for years. In such instances corporate memory resides more in staff than in those that come and go.

Occasionally an association will hire a new chief of staff who insists upon also bringing on board “his people” with whom he can work more comfortably. “His people” often replace long-tenured employees who are custodians of the association memory. I have always viewed such action by executives as more a mark of insecurity than one of leadership. It is sad to see hundreds of years of corporate memory and experience sacrificed to the whims of an executive unwilling to trust in his ability to lead an existing organization. A valuable fence is thereby needlessly torn down.

Third Lesson: “Manage your ego.” (The most important one, according to my instructor.) The instructor spoke extensively about the importance of ego, but also warned that out-of-control ego was a major cause of poor judgment and failure. T.S. Eliot said, “Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important.” Outstanding examples of this abound in our own business. Some years ago, two major companies suffered through serious financial problems because their CEOs substituted their personal judgment for long-standing prudence in investing company assets. In so doing they added to the perception of a solvency crisis the entire industry had to bear.

The instructor taught that it is important not to take yourself too seriously. He suggested that a good exercise to remind yourself of this is to stick your arm in a bucket of water and see how big a hole you leave when you pull it out. The world will surely survive even when you are gone.

Well, I am not sure that I can lay claim to having always abided by the lessons taught to me so many years ago. But I do believe they are as valid today as they were in 1943 and that their application is not limited to the military. The lessons have, I believe, been particularly valuable in helping me to separate the true leaders from those who were simply persons with authority, but who dominated more by personal ambition than the desire to lead.

So, as we salute this summer’s new and potential leaders, may they always lead with wisdom, patience and tolerance.


“The instructor taught that it is important not to take yourself too seriously. He suggested that a good exercise to remind yourself of this is to stick your arm in a bucket of water and see how big a hole you leave when you pull it out.”


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