As a kid growing up in Hanford, I discovered my interest in leadership. Maybe not typical for a small-town boy, but the YMCA Youth in Government Program was an important influence on me to study leadership. My first formal leadership position was as a 16-year-old editor-in-chief of the Hanford High School newspaper, although I had gained significant informal leadership experience much earlier in managing my Hanford Sentinel paper routes and lawn-mowing and leaf-raking “businesses.”
I was inspired to study leadership in greater depth as a college student at Berkeley and Stanford with some of the world’s leading scholars. My doctoral dissertation adviser at Stanford, James G. March, has been referred to by the Harvard Business Review as one of the most influential leadership scholars in the world. His unconventional views of leadership have undoubtedly shaped my own thinking on the topic.
In his courses, Professor March used classical pieces of literature to teach valuable lessons about leadership, including Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” and Shaw’s “Saint Joan,” just to name a few. Quixote’s phrase in that book, “Yo se quien soy!” (I know who I am!) is a timeless reminder that effective leadership requires one to follow his inner moral compass. Saint Joan of Arc’s powerful vision of the future, despite the daunting challenges she faced, is a reminder of the vital importance that leaders must develop and articulate a vision that inspires others.
Much about leadership is personal, meaning that it is difficult to generalize the experiences of one leader to another because organizations are often facing different types of challenges and opportunities under varying conditions. Leadership is a lot like bull riding. Each day represents a different bull and a different ride. The bull rider, or in this case the leader, must be strong enough to succeed under even the most unexpected and stressful conditions. Because of the increased complexity of our world, leadership in large, public organizations has become a 24/7 experience.
According to the scholarly research on leadership, the most effective leaders are those whose philosophy, personality and technical skill-set are aligned with the current and emerging needs of the organization they serve. When this occurs, it is said that a leader is “the right person at the right time.” Conversely, it is possible for a leader to be the right person for a specific period of time but not for a different future envisioned by an organization. When this occurs, it is essential for a leader to know the time is right to prepare for a transition to new leadership.
While leaders face different types of challenges because of the nature and history of the organizations they serve, I have discovered some hallmark characteristics of effective leadership that maximize the chances of success even under the most challenging circumstances. These characteristics are:
One of the most essential skills of an effective leader is good listening. Listening enables a leader to understand more clearly the culture of the organization and community they serve. It also signals a sincere openness to the creativity that exists in others around them. A leader who engages in continuous listening, especially to those who may have a different perspective, makes better decisions because they are challenged by a rigorous analysis based on different perspectives.
Leaders should embrace the importance of lifelong learning. Effective learning comes from repeatedly challenging assumptions about how to find new ways to strengthen your organization. One trap that leaders can fall into is to stop learning. I have met leaders who believe that they know all that is needed to do their job and they continue to do the same things in the same ways. Working in this way becomes a powerful routine and eventually a trap. An effective leader guides their organization by ensuring that it is as agile as possible in seizing new opportunities aligned with its mission.
Leaders are more successful when they are authentic. The best piece of advice I received prior to interviewing to be president of California State University, Fresno, was to be myself. This advice was liberating because I stopped thinking about what I thought people might want me to say and do and to instead say and do what I believed. I went into those high-stakes interviews with the goal to show the committee exactly who I was and to articulate my vision for the future. My hope was they would agree that I was the right person at the right time. Thankfully, they did. Some leaders believe they need to be a different person in public than in private. I disagree. Unless they have “a blind spot” that can be addressed through a shift in behavior, I would urge them to find another organization to lead.
Effective leaders are both “poets” and “plumbers.” The poetry part of leadership relates to the importance of public speeches and other presentations, while the plumber part of leadership focuses on making sure things get done. Doing both well is essential to success. A leader who focuses more on the poetry and less on the plumbing could experience difficulty in accomplishing their goals. In that scenario, a leader is vulnerable to challenges of being unproductive.
Being a good plumber, in this context, requires a leader to take the time to understand the business of their organization. They must hire and retain the most talented colleagues possible and give them the authority to be successful, while offering advice and support as needed. My colleagues and I are consistently focused on how to better support students to become more successful and graduate in a more timely way. An approach to being a better plumber enables a leader to follow through more successfully on their vision.
A leader who follows through on what they say they are going to do earns a deeper level of respect and credibility from the community they serve.
One of the challenges faced by leaders is to make a transition from being a successful individual performer to being successful collaborators. This adjustment in approach requires the leader to understand that their success is defined largely by how well they can inspire their colleagues to do what is necessary for the organization to achieve its goals.
For a public institution, such as Fresno State, it is equally important to collaborate with others in the community. The most vexing challenges facing our region – poverty, educational inequality, unemployment, insufficient water resources – require collaboration between and among leaders of many different public and private organizations. Leadership at this highest level requires one to focus on “the greater good” of the community, rather than self-interest.
An effective leader demonstrates compassion in each action. Being compassionate requires leaders to place themselves in the shoes of those they serve. Listening carefully to others enables a leader to do this and to act in ways that are consistent with the mission of the organization and fair to all concerned.
The most powerful recent example of this for me was learning early in my presidency that almost one-third of Fresno State students were food insecure (missing one or more meals each day). I could not honestly urge our students to be more successful in the classroom if many of them were battling hunger. My colleagues and I acted decisively to put in place a comprehensive food security program – with extraordinary support from many alumni and friends – to address this acute need.
As I have reflected on these important characteristics, I realize that the initial inspiration to study leadership came from my earliest years of life spending time with my late grandfather, Jess Mendez. He consistently demonstrated these characteristics for me through every public and private interaction. Unbelievably, I never saw him lose his temper. My grandfather’s many lessons formed the foundation of my own approach to leadership and life.
I serve at Fresno State because the mission of preparing the next generation of leaders for the Central Valley and beyond deeply inspires me. Being a leader in today’s complex world requires a comfort level in dealing with unpredictable situations. Practicing effective leadership requires a level of commitment that can occur only if one’s personal values are aligned with those of the institution they serve.
I urge current and future leaders to serve with fearless courage, unwavering integrity and a relentless focus on supporting the greater good of our community. For me, the seeds of this exciting leadership journey were planted just down the road from Fresno as a kid – spending time with my grandfather.
Joseph I. Castro is president of California State University, Fresno. Follow him on Twitter: @JosephICastro