Lessons in Leadership
William F. Porter
My introduction to leadership was not auspicious: “The only problem with this new guy is that he’s from Iowa, is a still-wet-behind-the-ears Ph.D., and, as best we can tell, doesn’t know the first thing about fish or wildlife or forestry in the northern forests.” That was the essence of the opinions, sans profanities, expressed by the staff of the Adirondack Ecological Center where I was the newly appointed director. When you consider that the heir-apparent to the director position was a long-serving staff member, and the previous director’s son-in-law, you begin to see the larger picture.
The staff critique was largely correct but missed the point. Regardless of whether the focus is fisheries, wildlife or forestry, or rocket science, every organization is built on a substantial body specific knowledge, and new leaders are often technically ill-prepared. That technical knowledge is certainly important, but it has only a little to do with being a leader. The core of leadership fits into a structure offered by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus (e.g., Bennis and Nanus 1997). The simplicity of their structure enabled me to continually focus on improving my leadership skills. This structure has just four elements:
Learning to live this structure and understand it in depth is a process of trial and error. Perhaps most importantly, learning leadership skills is a process of self-reflection with the help of mentors along the way. This chapter is about these elements and the good fortune I have had to find mentors who could help me realize the lessons.