HONOR 401H Essay 1: Leadership Traits

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Leadership After
Three Years at Penn State

 

            I’d
like to think I’ve learned a few things about leadership during my time at Penn
State. Onward State taught me so much about how to be a leader, what to do and
what not to do. In high school, while I held leadership positions and
theoretically was a leader, there was always guidance and actual decisionmaking
from adults. Working to bring the blog to fruition and maintain it for the past
three years was really my first brush with what it takes to be a leader. At
times, it was a trial by fire. We made a lot of poor decisions. We admitted
fault and moved on. Lessons I learned from working with the blog aided me
countless times, whether working on group projects or starting new ventures. I
am so thankful in working on the Penn State Journal of International Affairs that
I had my Onward State leadership skills to build on.

            The
skills that I’ve gleaned from my college adventure thus far can be broken down
in to three categories: inspirational, progressive, and charismatic. Working
together, these skill sets help craft a capable, effective leader.

            Inspiration
is an easy enough trait to imagine a good leader would have. As they say, you
cannot be a leader without followers. Inspiration is what often causes many
people to rally around a cause or a leader. They are inspired by what they’ve
been told or what they’ve seen to work toward the same goal as the leader.
While you can inspire through actions and words, in my experience, actions are
much more effective. Illustrating the commitment necessary to succeed has a
very powerful effect on would-be followers. As such, passion for the subject
matter at hand and hard work are very persuasive traits when it comes to
recruiting people to join an effort and motivating them when they’re already
involved. From personal experience working with Davis on the blog, I saw that
he put in long hours to make it a success. This had the effect of both guilting
me in to working harder on our product and showing me how invested he was. Hard
work will have the same effect it had on me on others. It is very effective,
showing that you are ‘putting your money where your mouth is’ in expecting a
certain level of output, but far exceeding it. By the same token, showing
subordinates just how much you care about the success of the project can be a
very powerful motivation tool, leading to a more efficient, harder-working
organization. Passion can be contagious, eventually creating a whole corps of
people who eat, sleep, and breathe what you’re working on. So, inspiration can
be quite helpful in organizing and pushing staff to work harder and better,
which is a part of leadership, but what about leading and having vision? That
is where being progressive is helpful.

            In
this sense, I don’t mean progressive politically, socially, or culturally. I
mean progressive in moving forward, in looking forward. Effective leaders are
always looking ahead because, after all, they are in the lead. If they don’t,
there is only stagnation in their group or company. Being progressive means not
just being tactical, but being strategic as well. To some, there may appear to
be a distinction without a difference, but this is incorrect. Tactics are
inherently short-term. Figuring out what to do about a problem coming up tomorrow
or the next day is to use tactics. Working on a problem you might not encounter
for a year or two is to be strategic.

            This
is connected to the next important leadership quality: the ability to delegate.
People that are passionate about something (as a leader should be) often have
difficulty letting other people work on meaningful parts of it. However,
interacting with those meaningful parts can help motivate people to work
harder. Delegating requires trusting the people working for you enough for them
to handle critical parts of your project. If this occurs, a leader is freed to
work on new things. Tactics can be left to subordinates, giving leaders much more
time to devote to strategy, bettering the organization.

            Along
with delegation, decisionmaking is another important task for leaders. This may
seem obvious, but when you’re in a room with no leadership trying to come to a
decision, it can be a very frustrating thing. People kind of putz around and
nothing gets done. President George W. Bush once called himself “the Decider,”
and while that sounds pretty dumb, he was actually right. Leaders make
decisions. Any leader makes decisions. To lead, you must decide. There isn’t
really an alternative.

            The
final key to effective leadership is charisma. You could have the best ideas in
the world, be overflowing with passion, and have amazing leadership potential,
but without the ability to effectively communicate and build a following, it
will all be for naught. Certain charismatic skills are more valuable for
leadership than others. One of the most important, in my opinion, is to be
articulate. Early on in working at an organization, in convincing people to
work as hard as you, to be as passionate as you, you have to convince them.
Being articulate about what you hope to accomplish and how others can help will
greatly aid your effort, for people cannot work for you unless they know what
you want them to do.

Perhaps the most important however is ‘listening’.
Communication with a good leader is not a one-way street. Dictates are not
handed down from on high to be implemented. Leaders work with their
subordinates to ensure that the organization improves. Leaders ask questions
and actually care about the answers. Listening does two things: it shows your
staff that you value their opinion (increasing their feeling of ownership in
the activity), and it helps the organization move forward by opening up the
leader to criticism and new ways of looking at things. These conversations
spark innovation and move a company forward. Organizations that have stubborn
leaders intolerant of subordinate opinion will likely fail.

With one year to go in school, I undoubtedly have much
to learn about leadership. This list of traits is subject to change, but thus
far, they have served me well. With the Journal, UPUA, and the bikeshare
project I’m working on, these skills will get a lot of use this year. I’ll
check back in on how they’re working out soon. 

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