THE BLOG
03/12/2013 01:14 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2013

What Awful Leaders Do

Awful leaders make uninformed decisions, are as transparent as mud, are unrelatable, and they waver.

As a leader, how do you explain to your people; your customers, employees, your tribe, that you have a view of something that they are not privy to? It happens often in any business. It is the leader's job to see out into the horizon and to use that view to safely steer the ship to its destination without running aground. How do you politely tell your people that "I see something you can't see and that is why we are moving in this direction?"

One of my favorite books on leadership is John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage. The entire book focuses on this very issue only on a political landscape. The lessons shared however parallel nicely into running a successful business. One of my favorite excerpts from this book was the story of Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar. Lamar represented Mississippi in the U.S. Senate from 1877-1885. Like the other political figures in the book, Lamar was honored by Kennedy for making, on at least three occasions, decisions on behalf of his people, that were contradictory to what his people believed they wanted. Lamar had that view of the horizon and he knew what was best for his constituents, even though the beliefs those constituents held were diabolically opposed to his own.

Lamar's political career almost ended when his constituents vehemently insisted that he vote in favor of the Bland Silver Bill which would allow for silver to be put into circulation as silver dollars. Lamar had studied all sides of the issue and he knew that he needed to vote against the Bill. His constituents were under pressure of hard times due to lack of money and he knew that many were depending on the overnight relief that this influx of silver seemed to offer. He knew that a financial reprieve would not come even if he did approve the Bill. He also knew that voting in favor of the Bill would add further strife between the North and South. It was for these reasons Lamar voted against the bill, and in the minds of his constituents, against them too.

After the Bland Silver Bill was struck down, much in part to Lamar's deciding vote, Lamar had to start re-building trust with the people of Mississippi. In his bid for re-election, Lamar shared the following story about leadership from his days in the military:

"Lamar, in the company of other prominent military and civilian officers of the Confederacy, was on board a blockade runner making for Savannah harbor. Although the high-ranking officers after consultation had decided it was safe to go ahead, Lamar related, the Captain had sent Sailor Billy Summers to the top mast to look for Yankee gunboats in the harbor, and Billy said he had seen ten. That distinguished array of officers knew where the Yankee fleet was, and it was not in Savannah; and they told the Captain that Billy was wrong and the ship must proceed ahead. The Captain refused, insisting that while the officers knew a great deal more about military affairs, Billy Summers on the top mast with a powerful glass had a much better opportunity to judge the immediate situation at hand. It later developed that Billy was right, Lamar said, and if they had gone ahead they would have all been captured. And like Sailor Billy Summers, he did not claim to be wiser than the Mississippi Legislature. But he did believe that he was in a better position as a Member of the United States Senate to judge what was best for the interests of his constituents."

Lamar's lesson was clear and although his vote was unpopular, he was transparent in his reasoning. Lamar was re-elected to the Senate by an overwhelming majority.

Here is the lesson: As a leader, your decisions need not always be the popular ones. Make decisions based on your view from the top of the mast. Be transparent in your reasoning. Rally your people by finding a common story that they can relate to, like the story of Sailor Billy Summers. Last, but not least, hold strong.