The Artifacts of Leadership Spoke to Me

We constantly ask ourselves, “How can I be a better leader?” My chief legal officer once responded, “The best leaders write well, speak well, lead projects, lead people, and feel responsible for more than their scope.” That list of leadership artifacts spoke to me from the first moment I heard them, and I respect them today more than ever.

Yes, great leaders write well and speak well. But I wasn’t born that way. After learning to think well—in my case, think like an engineer and then, think like a lawyer—I had to learn to effectively communicate those thoughts. Learning to write well meant drafting for clarity, editing for succinctness, and anticipating viewpoints of both known and not-well-known readers. Writing isn’t the only mode of communication, so speak well incorporates interacting with live audiences. As a person who doesn’t enjoy public speaking, I had to practice layering on skills of oral expression, active listening, and spontaneous response to larger and larger audiences. (And a little humor doesn’t hurt either!)

While still learning to speak well, I moved to leading projects, where I encountered more and more issues that I was unable to resolve myself. Most significant problems are too big for a single person to resolve in a reasonable time frame. So a project leader serves the project team by building consensus starting from agreeing upon an articulation of the problem through collecting diverse ideas and then refining a coherent solution. After creating a multi-team execution plan for the solution, having only influence (and not formal power) hones those communication skills of write well and speak well. Leading projects also leverages personal relationships to motivate others to invest time, effort, and resources toward a common goal—often navigating changing situations.

Adding to leading projects, leading people requires concern for careers and building long-term trust. Great leaders find complementary teammates and help them work together, express their own unique viewpoints and talents, and stretch to gain new experiences and skills. And although you might expect having a formal management position to lead people is easier than only having influence, management has its own realm of struggles.

Underlying each of these artifacts is a growing sense of ownership and responsibility. Projects rarely restrict themselves to a single department, boundaries can be fuzzy or unstable, and big problems sometimes extend to entire industries. So great leaders see beyond their formal scope and collaborate to pull together teams that help not only themselves but others. And the best leaders do all this while developing additional great leaders!