What can I tell you about leadership?

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Category: Leadership

In April of 2011, I retired as the Managing Director of the Milwaukee County Transit System. My career there spanned almost 32 years and allowed me to do everything from counting bus passengers to negotiating contracts.  MCTS is a publicly funded organization, managed by a private non-profit company, with 1100 employees, a $175 million dollar budget, and a mission to serve the public.  Steering that ship was a challenge; it was also a blessing and a great learning experience!

  • Being in charge can be a lot of fun.  It can also give you nightmares and gray hair — especially if you care about the people you work with and those that you serve. It isn’t as easy as it looks, but not much that is worth doing is!
  • A leader has to get people moving in the same direction, either through collaboration or command.  If they aren’t rowing with you, they are rowing against you — even still oars hold the boat back.
  • There are lots of different styles of leadership.  You have to know what fits best with your personality (the easy part) and with the organization that you are attempting to lead (a little more of a challenge).  Organizations are made up of people and people have thoughts and ideas and feeling and agendas that don’t always mesh well with yours.   Sometimes leadership feels like herding cats!
  • My favored leadership style involves collaboration and a willingness to listen and to learn. It is a great leadership style when you have sufficient time.  When you don’t, you just have to move forward on your own and hope that your team will understand and follow, because you have built an atmosphere of trust and respect.
  • Communication is a tricky thing, especially in our virtual world.  You need communication to get your team onboard, but no message is just for a specific audience any more.  Your competitors, detractors, and even your mother will know anything that is communicated to your employees.
  • The speed of communication has changed the parameters of leadership.  There just isn’t time to weigh and measure each response to every issue.  Often the media knows about an incident before you do, and they expect a response NOW.  The sooner you learn to live with that, the more successful you will be.
  • It is true that “What gets measured gets done”. The hardest part is to make sure you are measuring the right things with the right measures.  You can also get so caught up in measuring the details that you miss the big trends; so don’t forget to look beyond those parameters sometimes.
  • Leaders often have to make decisions with incomplete information.  That’s what a leader is – someone who has the courage to move forward in the face of uncertainty; to determine a course and to lay out a strategy to get the rest of the organization moving along with you in that direction.  Not deciding is a decision…and it is often the wrong one.
  • Success and failure come and go, often with forces that are outside of your control. In the end all you have is your integrity and your reputation, so don’t abandon those too easily, despite what Donald Trump says!
  • I was lucky…an anomaly.  My career was blessed with a 30+ year growing experience in an organization that focused on a mission that I truly believed in — providing public transportation to the community. I had the opportunity to learn from some great leaders and the opportunity to row really fast to keep everything afloat.  Take every opportunity to learn what you can and always keep moving forward!

5 Responses - Hide

    • A very honest and insightful set of thoughts on what it means to take on the role of leadership. And timely as well, with the reference "even your mother will know anything that is communicated to your employees." Ha! How true! Friends and family have new meaning in today's Twitterverse. As the article points out, leaders at all levels must accept the reality of the world we're living in today and proceed accordingly. Your other point about "measuring" is something I've experienced. Some organizations get so caught up in the goals they've set that they become rigid in their thinking, and leaders get stuck in the metrics rut, which in turn may hold people back who have innovative ideas. Your advice "to look beyond those parameters" is spot on. Overall, I found this article inspiring, especially your definition of what a leader is..."courage in the face of uncertainty." So very true. Moving forward!
    • Mary Carol Rick
    • July 13, 2012
    • I can't even imagine leading an organization with that size budget and number of employees! I'm so thankful there are people like you with leadership abilities, and courage to do so. Believing in the mission of the organization is the inspiration that moves us forward.
    • Arleen Hollenhorst
    • July 17, 2012
    • Thank you both for your kind and thoughtful comments. As so many of the others on this site have pointed out, the challenge is not just leading, but still being able to live with yourself! Luckily we have a lot of great examples in our community of people that are able to lead with intergity.
    • Anita Gulotta-Connelly
    • July 17, 2012
    • Wow!! I was actually quite energized by your article. As one that has been in that role, albeit not nearly as large and scary, I could have used that wisdom. For certain I will carry it forward. Thank you for your insight.
    • Roosevelt Hall III
    • July 17, 2012
    • I'm glad to hear that it was helpful! Thank you for your comments.
    • Anita Gulotta-Connelly
    • July 18, 2012