In his profile of University of Alabama quarterback A. J. McCarron, John Wertheim describes a scene that took place when the record-setting quarterback first arrived and joined the team as an 18-year-old freshman.
At his first intrasquad scrimmage McCarron was grouped with walk-ons, facing the defensive starters. He was sacked early and often, and wasn’t happy about it. He didn’t even remove his cleats before marching into Coach Nick Saban’s office afterward.
“I need to talk to you,” he snapped.
“O.K.,” said Saban.
“You want me to show you what I can do, how I can play? Well, I can’t do s— when you put me with walk-ons who can’t even block. I don’t understand why you don’t put me with the [starters].”
“Why? Because today we were testing your leadership,” Saban said, barely looking up. “And you failed. Miserably.”
Life is filled with little tests (and big ones), and they aren’t always what they seem. Tests of faith. Tests of skill or knowledge. Tests of character. Tests of performance. And yes, tests of leadership.
Most of these tests reveal themselves in the rearview mirror, not in the windshield. It’s only after the fact that we can truly see them for what they are. What we can do, however, is use hindsight to identify when others faced tests of leadership and learn from their successes or “miserable failures.” Here are five ways to recognize when your leadership was being tested:
In Defeated or Languishing Causes
Many a leader has emerged from the defeat of a cause, an idea, or a group of people that, in the leader’s mind, deserved better. Sometimes these leaders emerge from within. Sometimes they arrive on the scene, convinced that “somebody has to do something and it may as well be me.”
King David in the Bible wasn’t always the king. In fact he was the runt of seven brothers until a languishing cause riled him up. Same goes for Nehemiah, Ezra, and a host of other people who were told to mind their own business. The same also could be said about some of history’s most respected leaders, such as Washington, Lincoln, and King in the U.S. – Mandella and Thatcher in other parts of the world.
One of your first tests of leadership has to do with whether you can be bothered or interrupted by the plight of people, organizations or even nations. Can you get your head out of the sand or tear your eyes away from the StupidPhone long enough to get angry or brokenhearted at someone else’s plight?
In Missing Plans or Pathways.
Vision gets a lot of press in leader lore, and it should. But vision without a deliverable plan or pathway is just a vain wish. The true test of a leader is more than just, “Can you imagine something better?” The true test is, “Can you show us a plan or path to get from here to there, then inspire us to take that path?”
That is, in my mind, what will always define the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Elected at the all-time height of the “Misery Index,” in a time when the Cold War was an accepted reality, Reagan arrived on the scene with a completely different plan for dealing with both. Politicians howled and wailed about it, but the president persisted, and the results are (literally) history.
What about you? What’s your plan for solving that problem, achieving that dream, or fulfilling that passion? Go beyond wishful thinking. Follow through with powerful planning and execution. That’s what the leadership test is all about.
In Opportunities Disguised as Threats or Risks
It takes a leader to spot opportunities in dangerous seasons. When President Roosevelt addressed a broken, fearful nation and confronted its number-one enemy as “fear itself,” he demonstrated a capacity for leadership that endeared him to the American people. That’s in contrast to many a would-be leader who hides in the foxhole and hopes for the best.
That doesn’t mean that effective leaders are gamblers or gunslingers. But it does mean that leaders can see past the fear of the moment or imminent danger and find genuine opportunities for the courageous. Every great invention of the industrial age came with its share of risk – financial and mortal. But those who could spot opportunities lurking beyond the dangers helped define future generations.
Is risk or danger testing your influence? Have you learned to see past the ominous and find the opportunity? That’s one of the sign of a leader who “gets it.”
In the Criticism of Petty, Jealous People
Let’s be clear: Criticism hurts. And it hurts for two reasons – because the critics are right, or because the critics are wrong. When the critics are right, the criticism hurts because excellence matters and you care about it. There are so many things you could do more effectively, and that’s frustrating.
When the critics are wrong, it hurts because the whole world seems to have a need to stop and consider the criticism and “give the devil equal time.” And just because the critics are wrong doesn’t mean nobody takes them seriously.
Avoiding criticism is tantamount to avoiding leadership. The test of leadership is whether you can answer the legitimate criticisms, while at the same time being solution-focused rather than problem-focused. Can you be teachable without reducing yourself to the pettiness of your critics?
In Conflict Among Team Members
Until you arrive in heaven, you will have conflict. Even the greatest of leaders face it, but they don’t run from it. The good ones have a way of harnessing the passion, intelligence and talent of conflicting people and forging a team out of them.
Abraham Lincoln is a classic example. As Doris Kearns Goodwin masterfully describes in her book, Team of Rivals, Lincoln engaged the brightest, most talented men possible to lead his administration, all of whom only had one thing in common – they all disdained him. Yet his masterful skill at engaging people for the greater good eventually earned their respect and admiration.
If everybody in your organization is getting along and agrees about everything, you may want to recheck your agenda or vision. You may not actually be leading them anywhere. And if you’re spending all your time whining about how nobody gets along and how you just wish you could find another set of people to work with, just remember – your leadership or lack thereof will determine what happens. Ultimately that is what’s being tested.
I’m sure there are plenty of other ways that your leadership can be tested. But this is as good a place as any to start. And even if you’re looking at it in hindsight and you have failed miserably, in most cases you have time to reinvent your leadership influence.
Just ask A.J.
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