In the spring of 49 B.C., civil war gripped Rome. The conflict raged first in Italy, Spain and southern France and then began to spread eastward. Two great opposing generals, Pompey and Caesar, were jockeying for position and advantage. Caught up in a waiting game punctuated by bursts of fighting, each leader tried to outwit and outmaneuver the other.
Eventually, General Pompey located a weak point in the line and used the information to attack and take Caesar by surprise. But Caesar rallied and launched a counterattack that same day. It started out well, but then his men found themselves in a maze of walls and ditches. Many began to panic. Caesar, however, stood firm as soldier after soldier ran by in retreat, still holding their battle standards — long poles lined with metal disks and topped with a carved image of a human hand — designed to be symbols of commitment, confidence, courage, resolve and determination.
Caesar knew this would be his last stand, as his army had run out of supplies. With no avenue of retreat, they would be at Pompey's mercy and likely to be soundly defeated if they lost the battle. Caesar seized one of the standards with his own hands and commanded the men to stop. Initially, not a single man stopped. But then, things began to turn. The example of their leader breathed new life into the fearful warriors and, in turn, gave them the courage to renew the fight. In the end, they secured the most significant victory of the great Roman general's military career.
I have long been fascinated by the traits and characteristics of successful leaders. As I reflect on more than 26 years of service, in which I had the immense privilege of leading four organizations in both peace and war, I have come to appreciate how the traits that make someone a best-in-class senior military strategist, motivator and exceptional general also describe the attributes of effective and exceptional business leaders. With this in mind, I would like to share five timeless traits of "best-in-class" leaders in any industry or vocation:
Visible commitment: It is no surprise that we hold both military leaders and private-sector CEOs to an extraordinarily high standard. It's elementary, really. To inspire and rally your troops, you need to be a worthy example. Much like the standard carried by ancient armies into battle, a best-in-class executive should serve as a beacon — a light in the darkness. Like moths drawn to a flame, the best leaders eagerly accept responsibility for guiding their team through hurdles and obstacles. Demonstrate your commitment to the people you serve by your willingness to risk going first, to show and go the way, in good times and tough times.
Confidently decisive: Best-in-class military leaders and CEOs recognize a decent plan executed now is often better than a perfect plan executed tomorrow. They realize the most gifted leader is worthless if he or she cannot be decisive about decision-making. And they appreciate that in a dynamic, ever-changing world, stagnation leads to complacency and complacency kills your team's momentum and positions you to become irrelevant. Don't wait for perfect clarity on what is happening around you. Be comfortable assessing the situation, seeking the right information, providing clear intent, and then getting out of the way and trusting your people to get the job done.
Courage to act: Best-in-class military leaders and CEOs are comfortable thinking creatively, rapidly, and effectively. They understand the importance of developing relevant strategies to guide the overarching efforts of their teams and they embrace the fact it is their responsibility to provide clarity to those around them. Don't be afraid to exercise the confidence and courage to transform past experience into present informed action. Show your people you are, no matter how daunting their current circumstances, willing to do what's required to keep the mission moving forward.
Resolve to judge quality, not people:
Best-in-class military leaders and CEOs possess a strong sense of fairness. Without it, one cannot effectively lead. This means they staunchly believe talent and work ethic get people promoted, nothing else. They make it a priority to treat employees with dignity and respect. Be a leader who operates on the moral high ground. Hold your people to a high standard by enforcing discipline fairly and consistently. Give people reason to believe they will be appropriately recognized and rewarded for their efforts.
Be determined to grow your replacement: Best-in-class military leaders and CEOs understand that their top priority is developing talent and growing more leaders. Alexander the Great conquered the largest empire the world had previously known. But he died just short of turning 33 without having provided for his succession or a plan to administer his vast conquests. His empire immediately collapsed into civil war and chaos. Alexander was the last of his line to reign. Don't make the same mistake. Invest your best in developing those around you. It is the greatest investment you can make as a leader.
Remember that being a best-in-class executive isn't about you. It is about effectively and selflessly serving those entrusted to you. Your primary role is to set a standard worth following and ideally, emulating. Be a beacon — a light in the darkness. Choose to guide your team through hurdles and obstacles by being the first to endure hardship and the last to celebrate victory.
Then you will know how exceptional leadership in its purest, most rewarding form is foremost about exercising commitment, confidence, courage, resolve, and determination.
John E. Michel is a retired Air Force brigadier general and co-founder of the blog GeneralLeadership.com. This commentary is derived from his forthcoming book, "The Art of Positive Leadership: Becoming a Person Worth Following," slated for release this spring.