Leadership: It Ain’t No Birthday Party!

Leadership: It Ain’t No Birthday Party!

As the day approached, I grew a little more panicky of what to expect.  I had signed up to join the navy the summer before my senior year in high school. Ten months had passed and, although I knew I was leaving for boot camp two days after my 18th birthday, I had put being a sailor on the back burner and just enjoyed my senior year.  Now that the time was near, I wanted to know what to expect and how to be successful.  That’s when I decided to call my brother, Matt.    Matt had already been in the navy for six years and was doing well.  When I called him, I explained my anxiety and asked him for his sage, brotherly advice.  He told me, simply...

“Well, Chip...boot camp’s NOT a birthday party!”

That was it?  That’s all he could give me after being in the navy for six years?  NOT A BIRTHDAY PARTY!?  In the end, he was right, it wasn’t a birthday party.  He knew that I had to make my own judgment.  Boot camp had good parts, bad parts, and some fun parts, but it was definitely NOT a birthday party!  It was something I had to experience for myself.

I want to pass that same sage, brotherly advice along to people when they ask me if they should take a leadership role.  I want to tell them simply, “Well, it’s not a birthday party!”  I think we have a tendency to romanticize the leadership role.  Don’t get me wrong, leading is rewarding and is also what I love to do, but it’s not all cake, ice cream, and presents.  Why? Because leading is about people and people are messy.  As great as getting the opportunity to lead is, potential leaders need to ask themselves some serious questions as they contemplate taking the next step. Contemplate these:

Am I ready to make unpopular decisions? Sometimes, doing what is right makes people angry. Not every decision will be well received or liked.

Am I ready to put others before myself?  Leading is about serving.  The needs of the team come before your own needs.

Am I ready to not be liked?  Some won’t like the fact that you’re in that position instead of them. Others won’t like the donuts you bring in.

Am I ready to pass all of the credit and take all of the blame?  As leader, your team's success is theirs and their failure is yours.  You can delegate authority but not responsibility.  The buck stops with you!

Am I ready to be on the “they” team?  No matter how much you empathize with the team, you’re the “they” that gets complained about around the water cooler (and to their spouse).

Can I stand up for what is right in the face of adversity?  Whether it’s with your team or your superiors, leaders must stand up for what they believe in.  No flip-flops or milquetoast allowed.

Can I confront a situation in person?  It may be giving bad news, correcting problem behavior, or having to let someone go.  Regardless, giving the news in person is the only way to go.  Email confrontations are for managers, not leaders.

Do I like repeating myself?  No matter how much you communicate, there will be those who don’t listen.  No matter how many times you say it, you’ll need to say it again.

Can I laugh at myself?  Leaders who can laugh at themselves help create an atmosphere of risk without fear of reprisal.  If you take yourself too seriously, people will be laughing AT you and not with you.

Can I walk the talk?  If you are saying one thing and doing another, your team will be the first to notice and will follow suit.

Am I ready to know even when I don’t know?  In a stressful situation that seems to have no apparent solution, teams need to know that you know what to do (even when you don’t know).   Keep your insecurities and your stress to yourself, it will only complicate the situation.

If you can answer “YES!”  to these questions then, absolutely, you should seek out the first leadership position that comes along.  If not, can you answer "YES" to this question:


If you can answer "yes" to that one then you can weather all the other hardships of leading messy people.  A strong desire to make a difference can trump everything else.  Just remember that there are no “one size fits all” or “cookie cutter” solutions to leading a team.   There will be good parts, bad parts, and fun parts, but it has to be experienced for yourself.  No, leading isn’t a birthday party but it is incredibly sweet!   Get out there and party!

LCDR Chip Lutz, USN(Ret), MSEd, CLL, is the president and founder of Covenant Leadership, LLC, and has 22 years’ leadership experience. A retired Navy Officer, he has had two command tours, served as the Director of Security for Naval District Washington, DC, during September 11, 2001, where he was responsible for the safety and security of 25,000 people on nine different naval installations in the national capital region during one of our nation’s most trying times.