I am putting the final touches on a manuscript. One of the tasks given to me by my editor is to chase down a quote that I plan to use to drive home a point in one of the chapters toward the end of the book. I have said many times that I truly love a great and pithy little quote. And this one from Adlai Stevenson is no exception.
Adlai Ewing Stevenson II (5 February 1900 – 14 July 1965) was an American politician and statesman. He was known as a skillful orator and debater. He served as a Governor of Illinois and he was twice an unsuccessful candidate for President of the United States. He mounted unsuccessful campaigns running against Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and again in 1956. He did serve the John F. Kennedy administration when he was appointed as United States Ambassador to the United Nations.
Here is a quote attributed to him:
“It is hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse.”
I am struggling to find a direct attribution to Adlai Stevenson although everyone seems to be quoting him. The quote in question has been written about recently in a book by Ron Gaddie entitled, Born to Run: Origins of the Political Career. In that book, Gaddie examines the political careers of nine different individuals who ran for political offices at a variety of local and state levels. I do not intend to review the book here. Rather, I want to look at the quote and explore its implication to us as leaders.
What does the quote say to you from a leadership perspective?
Here is what it says to me. It says that we must look beyond our own real, or imagined, shortcomings in order to be an effective leader. This is especially true when it comes to our self-confidence.
How many times are we afraid or reluctant to step out and lead for fear of how we may appear to those around us. As leaders, we must be willing to be different and be willing to look a little silly from time to time in order to lead effectively in an ever-changing environment. Some of the things that we read about years ago that were popular in management and leadership circles just may not work any longer. New challenges require new solutions.
Are there still some tried and true leadership principles? Of course, there are! I have a dear friend who is a little older than I am. He has been told that he is a little “old school” to be of any real value to an organization that we both are passionate about. His response is priceless. He says, “Well, at least I have a school!” In a situation where the existing leadership structure doesn’t have a clue, they may do well to try something that has worked in times past rather than continue to stumble around in the darkness of their own abilities.
Try something new
With “newness” there is undoubtedly going to be change. And change is scary. But don’t be afraid to try something new just because you are afraid that you may look a little silly. It is said, with great risks, come great rewards. And trying something new or different will be risky.
Perhaps the perceived risk will not be nearly as great as the actual risk. It is again our fear that inflates the perceived risk of trying something new.
Try something old
Hearken back to the response of my old school friend. Doing so is akin to the advice many of us have heard. “When in doubt, do it like Mom (or Dad) told you.”
This is good advice. Many times it is the tried and true approach that will work on many of our modern leadership challenges. Human nature has not changed and the world is made up almost exclusively of other people. So, why not try something that has succeeded in the past?
One more time
So, again I ask. What does this say to you as a leader? Are you afraid of how you will look if you try something new? Are you afraid to go back to something that has worked in the past because it isn’t the latest leadership fad?
Don’t worry about how you look. Think about how you act!
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