Leading From the Front

Communicate your standards and insist that staff live up to them.

May 14, 2012

Sometimes leaders succeed in spite of incredible odds stacked against them. Usually they’re successful because they demonstrate extraordinary leadership.

Here are a few examples:

  • George Washington, a man never accused of being a military genius, won a war against arguably the greatest military power in the world with untrained troops, incredibly strained supply problems, and a shortage of artillery. Washington was adored by his troops and the public for his courage, commitment, integrity, and endurance. He lost most of the battles he fought but always regrouped to fight again. He led his troops to win the last battle and the war. Military history is rife with other examples of leaders who persevered and led their troops to victory.
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower, who never fought directly in any battle, is considered one of the best and most successful generals in history. He displayed an incredible level of commitment; gathered a great and diverse team of “senior management;” and communicated and strictly enforced his standards, values, and objectives. General officers who failed to perform were quickly removed and sent home.
  • Business leaders Ray Kroc, Henry Ford, and Sam Walton all saw opportunities and fully committed themselves to success. All three turned their dreams into huge successful enterprises through personal sacrifice, undying commitment, and the ability to gather the right people to help them succeed. They guided and motivated their followers to create McDonalds, Ford Motor Co., and Walmart.

Good leaders “lead from the front.” That doesn’t mean leading every charge in the military or making every decision in a business. It means leading by example—communicating your standards, values, and objectives to staff, and then insisting they live up to those standards.

Strong leadership is as necessary for success in your credit union as it is in the military or the world of big business. Great military leaders start out at the lowest commissioned rank or sometimes as privates. Sam Walton started with one store, and Ray Kroc started as a salesman of milkshake mixers. But all great leaders have innate leadership skills and a commitment to succeed.

In your credit union, you measure success in many ways—asset and membership growth, bottom-line results, good examinations and audits, and member satisfaction. Common obstacles to reaching success are negative economic trends, unemployment, shrinking interest margins, increasing loan losses, and a heavy compliance burden.

These common performance standards and obstacles are very real and vary in degree from one credit union to another. How well your credit union deals with these issues is largely dependent on the caliber of leadership displayed and the gravity of your organization’s challenges.

Good leadership doesn’t always result in success. Sometimes the odds are just too lopsided to overcome. But a great leader will always accomplish much more and last much longer than a poor one.

Leading by example is critical to success. A credit union leader who demands a high level of service and courtesy for members, for example, must treat his or her employees with courtesy and respect and demand that all staff do the same. 

If cutting costs and striving for high productivity are major goals, then leaders must be thrifty and productive.

A job title near the top of an organizational chart commands overt respect from subordinates. But genuine respect must be earned over time, by consistently demonstrating the virtues and standards expected from subordinates.

The quality of performance delivered by people who truly respect, and in some cases admire, their leaders is significantly greater than that of people who perform out of fear of consequences. And when times are tough, that edge can be the difference between success and failure.

JOHN FRANKLIN is CUNA’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. Contact him at 608-231-4266.