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Doan To ALDP Grads: "Leadership Matters"

Remarks by
Lurita Alexis Doan
Administrator
U.S. General Services Administration
GSA Advanced Leadership Development Program
Graduation Ceremony
Washington, DC
April 17, 2008


Leadership is perhaps one of the most written about, analyzed, dissected, promoted, implied and sought after qualities throughout the world.  Many want to claim the mantle of leadership; few understand its true demands or are able or willing to meet its challenges.

And yet we continue to search for leaders.  But even then, perhaps because true leadership often shows our own lack thereof in sharp retrospect, true leadership often goes unacknowledged or unrecognized.

So, on the way over here, I was thinking about what I think constitutes true leadership, and I just wanted to share a few of my thoughts on this matter.

First and foremost, LEADERSHIP MATTERS.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  Sure Team, committees, working groups are important — especially in a federal government as large as ours.  But leadership is critical.  You can immediately recognize an organization, a plan, an idea that has a true leader at the helm. How?  Because true leadership requires ACTION.  And, action is a verb; action is motion; action is not just organizing meetings or spouting slogans or creating brochures—action means that things get done.  And that will most likely make the majority of people uncomfortable—because oftentimes status quo is the comfy armchair we like to sit in.

Second, leadership is hard.  It requires courage and leadership requires honesty and plain speaking.  And that, too, is often uncomfortable — and it’s a two way street.  As a leader, you also have to know your strengths and your weaknesses, and recognize these in others.  For example, me, one of my weaknesses is I am a real sucker for the underdog — no matter the issue; thinking that an employee is begin mistreated in any way brings out the fighter in me.  On the other hand, one of my strengths is that I am a fighter; I am relentless; I don’t despair; I don’t give up; I don’t stop.

Leadership is a prism; it is a fabulous crystal through which the entire world is reflected and its colors change depending on the environment and the person because leadership is unique in each leader.  There has never been, nor can be, any two leaders who are identical.  Why?  Because true leadership is an amalgam of your inner core characteristics forged in the fire of life, confronted with the necessity of any given situation — to make a fine, tempered sword of action — so if you are true to who you are, regardless of what you have learned or how you have been trained, your leadership style will be different than that of any other person in this room.

And that’s a really good thing!  I think that uniqueness is to be prized.

Leadership is also a lot of fun.  You get the chance every, single day to make a difference.  Why?  Because as I said earlier, leadership is about action.  I know that when I became Administrator, I made a decision, I promised myself not to squander the short time I had allotted to me, but to tackle the most pressing, the most dire, and the most difficult challenges facing GSA because then, I knew, if I worked each day on these challenges, I would be able to make a difference.  And, I have found, that making a difference is one of the most precious gifts in life.

Leadership asks the question, “Why not?”  Anyone can, and most often do, ask the question, “Why?”  It’s frequently negative in tone, and usually is a precursor to the explanation of why someone is not going to do something.  Why not, is a question of options; it implies that anything is possible and will be considered.  Why Not, is a question that allows others to share their input, but doesn’t obligate the leader to follow—because ultimately, leadership is not about consensus, not about getting cover from group agreement, but leadership is about doing what you, with your world experience, with your training and with your best judgment believe is the right thing to do in any particular situation to bring about the desired outcome.

Leadership is often lonely.  Why?  Because ultimately, it is the leader who makes the decision for a particular course of action, which, if successful, will be credit given to all, but which, if a failure, belongs only to the leader.  But take heart from this—knowing that any failure will stick to you and knowing that few will step up and share ownership of that failure is truly liberating.  It is liberating because knowing you have to bear the burden, you may as well have your way!

But the reason we are here today is because of a truly comforting fact:  leadership can be learned through preparation and experience.  Now, I know you have all heard the saying:  “She’s a born leader,” or, “He’s a real natural”— or something like that.  And it is true; there are people who seem to be born leaders.  That’s what ALDP does.  It provides you with skills to tackle problems, confidence that you will be backed up and opportunities to test yourself.  So, I would argue that those individuals are simply strong individuals who are prepared for the leadership opportunity when it arises—and they boldly seize that opportunity. 

Leadership is about recognizing opportunity.  Wherever there is a problem, wherever there is a failure; wherever there is a need—there is an opportunity for leadership.  Leadership also requires flexibility because things don’t always work out exactly as you might have planned.  But, there is an old Chinese saying:  “It is never too late to turn back on a wrong road.”  And, I assure you, there is no leader, not anywhere, not ever, who hasn’t once in a while gone down that wrong road.  In fact, leadership requires a willingness to be wrong sometimes.  That’s because the only way to always be right is to never do anything different --- do I hear status quo?  But, the difference is the leader (remember we talked about action verbs?)   Leaders rarely stay wrong.  They adapt; they innovate; they find a way to succeed.

And, that too, often makes people uncomfortable—because remember—Newtonian Physics is at work everywhere—even in a government agency--- and Newton says, an object at rest tends to stay at rest, but leadership is about motion, and leaders make sure that an object in motion is going to stay in motion.

Leadership is used to adapt to imperfect situations with imperfect resources.  My absolutely favorite president, Theodore Roosevelt, used to say:  “Do what you can, with what you have, wherever you are.”  Those words are the recipe for innovation; they are the way that leaders always move forward and they are the way that leaders are able to make a difference each and every day.

And that is my real wish for each of you, this evening, as you graduate from ALDP.  I wish you the ability to make a difference because, above all, leadership is a privilege, and we should strive to be worthy of that privilege each and every day.

Thank you.