| Oct 27, 2021

Forget Titles – Leadership Boils Down To Behavior

The best leaders are defined by their characteristics and humility, not their rank. Here are some traits that make a great leader – and some that don't.
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By Emily Carney |

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During my six years in the United States Navy, I frequently heard the phrase “leadership boils down to behavior,” but I was so young at the time, I don’t think I truly understood what that meant. As I transitioned into the civilian workforce and grew older (and hopefully wiser), I began to view examples that taught me how and why leadership wasn’t defined by a title or rank, but how the leader handled situations, particularly crises.

Here are three real-life examples of how a leader’s behavior influenced the outcome of a situation, and how positive tactics can, in turn, help you to become an influential leader, no matter the industry.

Stay Calm And Get The Whole Story

In April 1970, NASA, the United States’ space agency, faced its biggest crisis to date. The Apollo 13 spacecraft’s service module suffered an oxygen tank explosion, and its three crewmembers’ lives were imperiled. Immediately after the explosion, Flight Director Gene Kranz’s team tried to figure out what had happened to the vehicle but had to turn over their shift to Flight Director Glynn Lunney’s team. Lunney’s behavior during these stressful hours provided a master class in how to handle a potentially life-threatening crisis.

Lunney was the epitome of cool, calm, and collected during the first hours following the explosion and methodically assigned each of his flight controllers tasks in order to take inventory of what resources the spacecraft had left. While all personnel assigned to save Apollo 13 did their part in ensuring that the crew arrived home safely, Lunney’s unflappable demeanor during the first hours of what could have been NASA’s first deadly in-space crisis set the tone for the rest of the mission. Lunney fully understood that leadership boiled down to behavior, and if he had panicked or gotten frustrated during his shift, he wouldn’t have received the full story about what was happening to the spacecraft. These principles can be applied to just about every industry, particularly during times of crisis.

Take Responsibility And Take Charge

Everyone at some point in his or her career will make a mistake, and those in the C-suite or at the highest levels of authority in his or her organization aren’t immune just because of impressive titles and accolades. Another spaceflight-related example of this involved Colonel Eileen Collins, who was the first woman space shuttle commander during STS-93 in 1999. During that mission, one of the in-flight activities involved a ham radio call to a group of young students back on Earth. However, Collins and crew were having trouble getting the call going due to technical difficulties. Later that day, Collins realized she had left an electrical breaker shut, which prevented the call from happening.

Instead of trying to hide what she had done – or worse, blame it on another crewmember – Collins immediately took responsibility for her minor mistake. In addition, whenever the crew became frustrated over issues with experiments or onboard equipment, she would break up the tension with brief meetings so the crew could refocus and regroup before going back to the tasks at hand. Collins’ manner of leadership – taking quick responsibility and taking charge of difficult situations – is why that space shuttle mission is remembered as being a resounding success despite early technical issues.


Lead As You Are

One popular example of how not to run a company is Theranos, the biotech startup led by CEO Elizabeth Holmes, who now is on trial for fraud. Holmes was reportedly obsessed with the late Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple, right down to copying his distinctive personal style of only wearing black turtleneck sweaters. In addition, Holmes visibly copied Jobs’ controversial managerial style. According to the book Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by journalist John Carreyrou, after Jobs’ biography was released, “Theranos employees said they ‘could pinpoint which chapter she was on based on which period of Jobs’s career she was impersonating.’”

Holmes seemed more interested in her public image as “the new Steve Jobs” rather than her struggling startup, which was plagued by workflow issues, a lack of focus, and a generally toxic environment – for example, employees were forced to work long hours, frequently without breaks. “Hustle culture” did Theranos’ workplace no favors, as its employees often suffered from burnout.

While all leaders, to some extent, absorb lessons from fellow industry leaders and colleagues, you don’t have to “copy” another leader’s style to get results. A “drill sergeant” type leader might work, say, at a military academy, but won’t fit civilian workplaces at all. A “Steve Jobs” personality may have fit Apple’s culture at one time, but it might not fit your startup. That’s why you should “lead as you are.” Stay true to your own personality, and develop your own managerial style that is consistent with you. That way, you’re more comfortable in your own skin, and in turn, your workplace’s culture is, too, more comfortable.

We’re All Leaders When We Unite

One thing that can also be learned from the positive examples of Lunney and Collins is that despite having authority based on their level of experience, they worked alongside their junior colleagues versus working in opposition to them. If Lunney hadn’t worked collaboratively with his team’s flight controllers, he wouldn’t have been able to make key decisions affecting Apollo 13’s mission. The same goes for Colonel Collins – she was better able to make decisions that benefited her crewmembers because she worked tirelessly alongside them. Regardless of experience, rank, or title, we can all bring something to the table when we work together.

Emily Carney
Executive Author

Strategic Media Analyst, Massive Alliance

Emily Carney is a strategic media analyst at Massive Alliance, where she helps to define the executive persona and provides publication support for the company’s editorial department. view profile


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