Why leadership is only ever about people

Gary C. Kelly
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I was recently asked to give a speech to a group of Deans and Assistant Deans who had gathered for a Symposium at my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, where I had a chance to talk about one of my favorite topics—Leadership. I shared five principles that I have found to be essential in order to be an effective leader, which I have outlined below.

Leaders Must Care

Leadership is about people. Period. Great leadership is about inspiring people, serving people, caring for people, and caring about people. You have to tell them you care.

A few years ago, we assembled a panel of Southwest Employees who had heroically served our country in the Iraq War and asked them to address our leadership team.

We asked them to describe what great leadership looked like to them. No one told tales of how smart their leaders were. No one cared where their leader was from, or what was on their leader’s resume. To a soldier, their heroes were the ones who cared about them—as human beings, as soldiers. Their leaders worked them hard, disciplined them when necessary, and sent them into battle! Yet, these soldiers knew, without a doubt, that their leaders cared for each soldier’s total well-being.

Somehow, some way, you have to convince people you care about them. And in turn, your people will be ready to help you win great battles.

Leaders must communicate

Not communicating well is one of the great mistakes a leader can make. When leaders don’t communicate well, the consequence is Employees don’t feel valued or important. For that reason, I can’t think of anything more important in leadership than communication. Ask people’s opinion. Communicate about everything.

By definition, leadership involves a group of people. To get any group to work together, you have to encourage and foster teamwork. How? You have to communicate. But, you have to communicate in the right way. It’s a matter of respect—truly, genuinely respecting others’ opinions.

Any time you work with a group, you should expect disagreement. That’s okay. You should embrace dissent. Our great country was founded on the principle that it is more than just okay to dissent—it is expected. Teamwork isn’t about “going along.” It’s about hearing all views honestly, admitting mistakes vulnerably, and sharing risks and rewards jointly.

Leaders must have character

To be a great leader or a great team member, you have to have character: honesty, integrity, respect for others, and selflessness. “You have to be not just willing, but eager to work harder than anyone else”—words from the great UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden. I’ll add one more: There’s an old saying that adversity doesn’t create character, it reveals it.

Leaders must be competent

To be a leader, of course, you have to know your stuff. You must be competent. Under promise and over prepare. I’ve found that various technical aspects of a profession are the easier parts of the job. It’s the human relationship side that is the most challenging—you can’t underestimate it!

Leaders must have courage

Finally, I think it goes without saying, leaders must have courage. It’s very hard to be a leader. It’s a lot easier to be a follower. It’s a lot easier to let someone else own the problem or make the decision. It’s a lot harder to stand up, speak up and be accountable.

This article is published in collaboration with LinkedIn. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Gary Kelly is a Chairman, President, & CEO at Southwest Airlines.

Image: Pedestrians cross a road at Tokyo’s business district. REUTERS/Yuya Shino.

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