What Makes a Great Mentor: 10 Traits of True Leadership

One of the most effective leaders I have ever met and experienced was an Army corporal named Burleson. We never even knew his first name; he was just Cpl. Burleson to us. He was tall and skinny and spoke with a Southern drawl. He never seemed to miss anything that the company of Army recruits under his command brought his way.

Chuck LauerI'll never forget his speech to us on our first day of basic training. We had been shouted at by sergeants and corporals as we exited the buses that brought us to Camp Pickett, Va., for our basic training as battlefield medics. All of us were draftees, and we were from all over the country. We were fish out of water, many of us just plain scared. There were college graduates, some with advanced degrees. Others had high school diplomas and not a few had only a grade school education. No matter what your background, you knew on that first day that Cpl. Burleson was our boss. The guy conducted himself with great grace, and he took the time to explain to us what he expected of us over the next 16 weeks of basic training. He didn't smirk, and he didn't yell at us like some of the other non-commissioned officers did. He took time to set out what we would deal with on a daily basis in training but also explained in an extraordinarily powerful way how the exercises we were about to carry out would help us when we got to Korea, where we would be in combat situations.

One day, we were on grenade training. We learned not only how to arm a grenade but how to throw it out of a trench. Everything was fine until we starting arming the grenades and throwing them. One trooper had armed his grenade and then instead of throwing it from the trench he dropped it right in the middle of myself and the other soldiers. We were all staring, stunned. Suddenly Cpl. Burleson dropped to his knees, picked up the live grenade and threw it out of the trench, yelling “get down!” as it exploded maybe half a second after the he threw it. Later, as we were marching back to our barracks, it dawned on all of us the courage we had just witnessed. He showed us with quiet dignity, efficiency and professionalism how a soldier should behave under extreme duress.

I am sure that Cpl. Burleson's background wouldn't make the grade for some of the highly educated consultants I've heard lecture on leadership, but I can tell you he was one of the most effective leaders I have ever met.

I have been lucky most of my life to have other great mentors. Long before my military escapades, I had a high school football coach named Donald Waterman. He had been an All-American player at Harvard back in the 1930s. I first met him as a sophomore at Nichols School in Buffalo, N.Y. I had heard all sorts of stories about him. It was said he was the most enthusiastic football coach in Buffalo. In the course of scrimmages with other schools, Coach Waterman would actually show players on the other team how to position themselves when blocking. He was always all over the place telling a guard how to block an opponent better or a back to run a play more effectively or the quarterback how to throw a pass so that it would be easier to catch. He was everything you could have wanted in a coach, and he treated every member of the team with respect and dignity. He taught us that hard work, a positive attitude and good sportsmanship were what being a good football player was all about. The lessons I learned from Coach Waterman made me a better boss in my career.

In my junior year we went undefeated in a very tough league. I still have the silver football each member of the team received for that wonderful season. Every time I look at it, I think of my old coach.

Later in my life, when I first became publisher of Modern Healthcare, I was lucky enough to report to a gentleman by the name of David J. Cleary. He was a senior vice president at Crain Communications, the company that owned the magazine. For many years he had been the publisher of Advertising Age, another Crain publication. Dave Cleary was a great boss who tutored me not only on my style of leadership but how to become more effective when calling on clients and prospects. He loved Crain and he loved working with people to make them better leaders in the workplace. He had great loyalty, but by no means was he a pushover. When you did something that he felt was out of bounds, he let you know right away in no uncertain terms. But after he chewed you out, he would get back to working with you again, the matter settled in a few minutes.

Why do I share these three vignettes? If you didn't already figure it out, they illustrate the common traits of effective leadership.

1. Effective leaders are present. They don't sit in their offices making phone calls all day, but take the time to wander around, engaging their teams in meaningful conversations, generating new ideas. They get to know their employees as individuals and find out what they think and feel and what their expectations are for the future.

2. Effective leaders mentor others. They just don't tell others what to do; they show them how to do it and why they should do it.

3. Effective leaders see things that others don't see. They look into the future and grasp things that others do not have the courage to even contemplate.

4. Effective leaders don't stop learning. They read, they listen to others and they go to seminars and meetings — all to stay on top of new concepts and knowledge.

5. Effective leaders make loyalty a high priority. That doesn't mean they want a bunch of yes people around them, but they do want people whom they can count on long-term to do their jobs well. They also show by example that loyalty is a two-way street.

6. Effective leaders always step into the breach when needed. They go out of their way to help their people. They look for these opportunities because it sends a message that the organization has a heart and is willing to step up to the plate to help employees in need.  

7. Effective leaders make sure they explain things in detail to their teams. They don't wait for HR or internal communications to send out a mass e-mail.

8. Effective leaders are good listeners. They pay attention to new ideas. They listen to learn each day what people need from them to do their jobs more effectively.

9. Effective leaders are humble and have great integrity. They don’t lead by fear and intimidation, knowing those practices will drive out good people and don’t advance the organization’s goals.

10. Last, but not least, effective leaders are great human beings. Cpl. Burleson, coach Waterman and Dave Cleary were tough and demanding, but they were also decent and caring people. That shines through, and inspires others to want to do more for the organization.

More Articles By Chuck Lauer:

Chuck Lauer: What's Really Happening to Healthcare?
Chuck Lauer: An IT Boondoggle?
Chuck Lauer: Greater Awareness of HAIs Has Not Translated Into Action

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