by Charles A. Ray, U.S. Ambassador (Ret.)
During my 50+ years in government, 20 years in the military and just over 30 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, I have been privileged to have been assigned to a number of challenging leadership positions.
One of my assignments, as ambassador to Cambodia, involved going into an embassy that had been totally demoralized, with the mission to get them back on track. It took some doing, but within six months I had taken an embassy that had deteriorated so much, some of its consular functions had been taken away and assigned to the embassy in Thailand.
I had a young economic officer who was a good writer, so I’d assigned him the additional duty as my principal speech writer. He would often follow me around; he said to get a sense of my speech pattern, vocabulary, etc., to enable him to craft speeches that I could deliver naturally and with ease. During these sessions, we asked a lot of questions about my philosophy on leadership, something I really hadn’t given much thought to.
Before joining the Foreign Service, I’d spent 20 years in the army where I’d also occupied leadership positions, but more importantly, where I’d had a lot of training and education, a lot of it focused on leadership and management. His response to my answer was that he’d known a lot of military officers and senior Foreign Service people, but the way I ran things was new to him.
As I stated above, I’d never given it much thought. I just did what I thought was needed and what was right to do. But he got me thinking, and the result of that process was a book on leadership that I published some three years after leaving my position in Cambodia.
In the process of putting my thoughts on leadership in writing, I discovered that it really wasn’t the army, or any other government entity that had taught me how to lead people. It was a tiny little woman in East Texas who hadn’t even finished high school, and who had taught herself to read using a Bible, a Farmer’s Almanac, and a Sears-Roebuck catalog.
My Grandmother, A Leader
My grandmother, Sally Young, was born in the 1890s, and had only been allowed to attend school for three years before having to drop out and work to support her family. Like a lot of the people in rural East Texas, she’d grown up in an oral tradition, a combined legacy of her African and Native American ancestry.
I lived with her from the time I was twelve until I graduated from high school four years later, and during that time, I heard hundreds of her stories and bromides, and never really paid them much attention—or, so I thought.
It turned out, though, that while I might not have been paying much attention, as children are prone to do, what she said stuck in my mind and shaped my future thoughts and actions. I thought at the time that her sayings were corny, and never realized that as an adult I often used them unconsciously to make a point.
The most amazing thing, though, was realizing decades afterwards that those stories and bromides were an education in how to motivate and lead people; how to inspire them to achieve more than they thought possible.
Following, are six of the most important things my grandmother taught me about leadership, and life in general. Simple but profound principles that are tried and true, that can be employed by anyone in any situation, and you don’t have to pay for an expensive MBA or PhD to learn them. There are many skills and abilities needed to be an effective leader, but these six are, in my opinion, the most important.
#1 Honesty and #2 Integrity
My grandmother, known by everyone in my hometown as Aunt Sally, was an even-tempered woman, but one thing that would cause her to blow her stack was if someone lied to her. She could forgive a lot of things, but dishonesty wasn’t one of them.
For any leader of any organization, honesty and integrity rank at the top of the list of essential traits. Some people have a tendency to use these two words interchangeably, but they are different. As my grandmother would say, ‘honesty is what you do when people are watching, integrity is what you do when you’re all alone and no one’s watching.’
In the rural East Texas town of 700 people where I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, deals were usually sealed with a handshake, and not because a lot of people couldn’t read or write very well. A witnessed ‘X’ on a document was then, and still is, legal, but the prevailing attitude was that if a person’s word couldn’t be trusted, a piece of paper wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference. Moreover, people were judged more by what they did than what they said. There was an old saying to cover that, too (when I was growing up, there was a saying for everything), that went ‘what you do is so loud, I can’t hear a word you say.’
When I enlisted in the army, I had no problem adhering to the Duty, Honor, Country, ethos. I’d grown up with that ethos. Military training only reinforced what I’d already been taught.
An example of honesty and integrity from my own career illustrates the meaning of both terms. When I served as Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) in Freetown, Sierra Leone from 1993 to 1996, we had a Marine Security Guard Detachment that took its duty to secure documents and equipment seriously. Pink security violations appeared on the desk or chair of any member of the embassy staff who was careless about leaving classified or sensitive documents or safes unsecured.
One day, I had to go to the foreign ministry near closing time at the request of the foreign minister. I’d been working on a confidential document, which I put in my Office Management Assistant’s (OMS) in-box, thinking that she would put it in her safe. Upon my return, I found her at her desk in tears. When I asked what the matter was, she showed me the Notice of Security Violation. I quickly realized that it was because of the document I’d left on her desk. What I didn’t know when I left it was that she was running an errand for the ambassador because her secretary was ill that day.
I took the notice from her, and assured her that I would take care of it, since it was me, not her, who had left the document unsecured. Needless to say, the marine on duty was shocked when I told him that he needed to tear up her notice and issue one to me, but he recovered and did as I asked. After listening to my explanation of what had happened, he issued a security infraction rather than a violation, which kept my record of ‘no security violations’ intact.
The aforementioned anecdote might seem like a trivial matter, but to the OMS who was spared the embarrassment of a security violation on her record, and the marine who was impressed that the DCM would take responsibility for something that no one else knew about, and had I kept my mouth shut would never have known about, a diplomat would demonstrate traits he’d previously to be something that only the military had.
That, though is what honesty and integrity is all about.
Leadership courage in most peoples’ minds is usually associated with the military, fire department, or police, but the things those in so-called peaceful occupations are in many ways even more frightening than being in battle. I know because I’ve been in a war zone, and I’ve been a leader in peacetime, non-security organizations, and when I look back on it, some of the decisions I had to make in the latter were more frightening than being in a building that’s being bombarded with B-40 rockets. While this might seem strange, studies have shown that public speaking ranks higher than the fear of death for most people. I can attest to this from my own personal experience.
The B-40 rocket attack mentioned above happened in December 1972 when I was chief of collection services for the 525th MI Group in Saigon, working in a building near the main runway at Ton Son Nhut Air Base. As the rockets fell closer and closer to our building (one hit between us and the building next door, gouging a hole in the wall directly behind my desk), I found myself worried, but calm as I saw to the safety of my staff from beneath a desk in the main area.
Contrast that to my first year in high school, when I was unable to stand in front of my classmates until my teacher, Mrs. Paulyne Evans, forced me to stand at the front of the room until I said something, even if it was only ‘good morning, class.’ Thanks to her, and the guidance of my grandmother, I did eventually overcome my fear of public speaking, but even now, more than 60 years later, I’m a little anxious whenever I have to make public remarks.
In order to be an effective leader, we must confront the things that we fear if we are to inspire those we lead. Not just the fear of physical danger, but the fear of failure, the fear of not being accepted, for these are often the things that hinder progress most. Effective leaders must have the ability to take risks, and inspire and encourage others to do the same.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines empathy as ‘the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.’ This is to be distinguished from sympathy, which is feeling sorry for someone. As a leader of any organization, it’s important that you understand what your subordinates, superiors, and colleagues are thinking and feeling, what motivates them, and what hinders their actions.
The people who work for you like to know that you understand what they’re going through, and while some will want your sympathy, most just want to know that you ‘have their backs,’ and are not asking them to do anything you wouldn’t be willing to do.
#5 The Ability to Communicate
The best idea is worthless if you’re unable to communicate it to others so that they understand it fully. Most people fail to realize, however, that they communicate with more than just their written and spoken words. We communicate continuously with our expressions, actions, and gestures. Body language often communicates louder than our words. As my grandmother and many of her contemporaries in rural East Texas often said, ‘what you’re doin’ is so loud, I can’t hear a word you say.
A former colleague of mine once told me that at an embassy where he served, the new ambassador issued a memo announcing an open-door policy. The problem with that was, at the same time, the ambassador arranged his office plants so that they blocked a view of him form the door, and required anyone wishing to see him to make an appointment with his OMS. In addition, he kept his door closed at all times. While this might seem trivial, imagine yourself assigned to that embassy. Would you believe that memo? My colleague certainly didn’t.
As a leader, you must know exactly what you mean to say or write, and then say or write exactly what you mean. Then, follow that up with actions that convey the same meaning.
#6 The Ability to Accept and Manage Change
The old folks where I grew up used to say, ‘the sun don’t shine on the same dog’s back every day.’ Don’t understand what that means? How about the words of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus? “No man ever steps in the same river, for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.’ The world is constantly changing, and those who are unable to cope with that change will find themselves left behind.
When I retired from the army and joined the Foreign Service in 1982, we were still preparing reporting cables using the old multi-page forms with carbon paper. By the time I retired in 2012, cables were written, coordinated, and transmitted from a computer. Conferences and meetings required setting up physical locations, transporting people, and were conducted face-to-face. Today, meetings, conferences, and classes of all sizes are conducted via Zoom, Skype, and a variety of other methods, including people from around the world. With the continuing development of technology, no one knows what the next innovation will be.
A leader must not only accept and manage change. The truly effective leader instigates change. Change is like a giant wave. The good surfer rides the crest of the wave to avoid being swamped and crushed by it.
Is This all it Takes to be an Effective Leader?
The aforementioned six traits are not the only traits for effective leadership, but like building a house, which needs a solid foundation before attending to the other details, they provide the foundation upon which effective leadership can be built. In addition, they provide the foundation upon which a meaningful, productive life can be built.
These traits, along with a number of other important facets of leadership are described in my first book, Things I Learned From My Grandmother About Leadership and Life, originally published in 2008, and issued in a second edition in 2018.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Charles A. Ray served as U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Republic of Zimbabwe. He was the first U.S. Consul General to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, opening the Consulate General in 1998. I met not-then-ambassador Charles Ray in Sierra Leone in the mid 1990s and forever remembered stories he told of his grandmother.
This article is a part of the Marketplace of Leadership Stories series.
- Who in your family gave you lessons of effective leadership?
- What were those lessons?
- How do you intend to pass them on to the next generations?