Today, we live in a fast-paced world with an up and coming group of young Millennials mixed with previous generations in all areas of personal and professional life. Leading those of the past, present and future takes a greater understanding of what being a leader truly means.
Len Bernat, groomed by 20 years of molding and shaping by some of the finest leaders in the USMC, has proven to be a shining light for those who cross his path. His ability to build strong teams into a functional unit puts Len in the top tier of exceptional leaders. Motivating others to feel empowered and taking their strengths to high levels of accomplishment, enables those, who have the right leadership, to reach their highest potential.
EB: You have had a rich history of leadership, culminating in your book, Leadership Matters: Advice from A Career USMC Officer. Tell me a little about your book and why every leader should read it!
LB: I had the opportunity to learn from some of the finest leaders our country produces by serving twenty years in the United States Marine Corps. In the first five years after I retired from the Marine Corps, I worked for five different organizations. The first four all closed and all for the same reason – poor leadership. I also noticed something else from this experience.
I was seen as a threat to each of the leaders I worked for because the employees gravitated to me seeking leadership and I would provide it. It bothered me that I could have helped each of the leaders be successful but was not allowed to do so because ego and corporate protectionism trumped proven leadership principles. So, I decided to write articles that outlined the principles of leadership and traits associated with exceptional leaders and post them to LinkedIn.
They caught the eye of Dennis Pitocco, Publisher & Executive Editor of BIZCATALYST 360° and he invited me to be a columnist on his website. The feedback I received was encouraging and I was often asked if I was ever going to put all the articles together in a book. The result is Leadership Matters: Advice from a Career USMC Officer.
This book takes the eleven principles of leadership and fourteen traits of a leader that I learned during my years in the Marine Corps and demonstrates through my real-life experiences how they work to mold a person into the kind of leader that people automatically follow. That is what makes this book so valuable.
The points made in each chapter come alive because you get to experience the positive outcome when each principle or trait is properly applied. If being an exceptional leader is your goal, this one book will begin you on a journey of discovery that will change the way you view your role as a leader and most importantly, begin transforming you into the kind of leader to whom people gravitate.
EB: You have seen good leaders and bad leaders during your 40-year career in leadership. What are the top 5 qualities you feel an exceptional leader must have and why?
Integrity: The most important trait for any leader is integrity. A leader must put honesty, sense of duty, and sound moral character above everything else. People will follow a flawed person who is honest enough to admit when they are wrong, but they will stop following anyone they discover that they cannot trust. Lose trust and you lose your team.
Demonstrate Unselfishness: After integrity, I would say a leader must demonstrate unselfishness. You will never succeed as a leader if your favorite pronouns are ‘I’ and ‘me.’ An exceptional leader always puts his/her people first. In the Corps, the lesson was demonstrated in a simple manner. The leader always ate last just to ensure all his/her Marines received plenty of food and were eating before the leader actually received food and ate.
Courage: Next would be courage. Not just the willingness to place yourself in harm’s way for the sake of your people, but the moral courage to stand up and say, “That is not right, and I will not be a party to injustice.” This type of courage will never make you popular but at the end of the day, when you look in the mirror, you will like the person looking back at you.
Loyalty: That would then lead us to loyalty. A leader understands that loyalty flows up and down. So, as an exceptional leader, you must be loyal to those who are in positions of authority over you and show them respect and loyalty. But you must balance this with loyalty to your team who is looking to you to ensure the corporate leaders understand their value and realize the many contributions they add to the bottom line that lead to the success of the organization. This balancing act can be difficult at times, but I have found that once you establish your leadership among the bosses, your peers, and your team, all will tend to listen to your suggestions and input because they will know that you have put the success of all others before yourself.
Displays Fair and Consistent Justice: Finally, an exceptional leader displays fair and consistent justice. Every person who aspires to a leadership position will be faced with important personnel decisions that can challenge even the most seasoned leader. In each and every case, ensuring that justice is the leading principle by which an appropriate solution will be found is important. By practicing justice, every team member will know that they will be treated with dignity and respect, but that they will be held accountable for their actions. In this manner, minor errors and infractions become learning tools; big errors and moral lapses are handled in a manner that prevents them from reoccurring.
EB: You understand the importance of building a team that will work together to meet the most difficult of goals, and ultimately enjoy the challenge that comes with the experience. Explain some of the keys to team building and how you have seen the positive impact on those you have led.
LB: Team building starts with the understanding that you are dealing with people – each is unique, and each brings their own personality, skills, and talents to the team. So, getting to know each of your team members on a personal level is important so that you can capitalize on their strengths and help them grow and overcome their weaknesses. Then, as assignments are being made, having someone who has demonstrated strength in a specific area, let us say writing for an example, team up with someone who needs to improve their writing skills, will create a learning environment for one member, and an opportunity to teach for the other member.
Always remember that you are a part of the team. So, it should be normal for your team to see that you, as the leader, have your sleeves rolled up and are willing to tackle a difficult part of a task to set the example.
I remember during rough seas that my Marines and sailors were scared to climb into the “blade rack” which was about 10 feet above the hangar deck to get a rotor blade down that was needed for an early morning exercise the next day. I put on the harness and rope and climbed into the rack for them (you have to tie off to one of the beams so that should a wave cause the ship to list in the wrong direction, you would not hit the deck when you fell from the rack). This demonstrated that I would never ask them to do anything that I would not be willing to do myself. Once they know that, your team will follow you anywhere.
Finally, you have to be the cheerleader for your team.
- When they hit a roadblock, gently talk them through the solution and help them envision success.
- When they are frustrated, help them see how their efforts support the big picture and the ultimate success of the entire organization.
- When they feel unappreciated, be sure to say thank you.
- Celebrate birthdays, work anniversaries, and special occasions for all team members just to encourage a spirit of oneness and family.
- Do whatever you can to let your team know they are the key to the success you are trying to achieve, and that you recognize you could not be successful without them. The result will be an unstoppable team.
EB: It was not an easy path to become a leader in the Marines. Describe the difficult times and the lessons learned that helped you to become a strong leader.
LB: There are two important answers to this question.
- The first goes along with the old saying that says, “if you never want to fail, then do nothing.”
Likewise, to become an exceptional leader, you will have to fail at leadership repeatedly.
In the early days of my Marine Corps career, I moved up the ranks very quickly. I graduated from boot camp as a private in October of 1973. By May of 1974, I was a Corporal and the following year, I was promoted to Sergeant with less than two years in the Marine Corps. I learned quickly that, as amazing my accomplishments were, I was not prepared to lead and made some really bad decisions when I was in my very first leadership role.
Luckily, I had several strong mentors who I could turn to for guidance. If you want to grow as a leader, you must seek out leaders of character and ask them to help you become an exceptional leader. One thing I learned over the years is that great leaders never keep the secrets to leadership to themselves. They are always willing to help others grow to their full potential because they do not fear greatness, they embrace it.
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