"Cubum Autem in Duos Cubos..." A Leadership Conjecture (Part 1)

  • Published
  • By Col. Anthony Hernandez
  • 319th Mission Support Group commander

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Part One:  As Airmen, we can read and mentor more. 

The title of this article is taken from the opening line of a well-known notation written in the margins of a prominent book. It is important to understand how this single notation sparked the imagination (and ire) of many intellectuals for centuries. I found this quotation useful in developing a practical "conjecture" regarding two essential habits, which must be cultivated in tandem for one to become an ideal leader. These two habits are reading and mentoring. The underlying premise of this article is that it is impossible to separate these habits which make the whole. The more immediate questions are why and how; which I will attempt to demonstrate in part one of this series.

Why reading?
We have all heard that "leaders are readers and readers are leaders." There is truth in this saying. I recently read an article in Forbes magazine titled, "Why Leaders Must Be Readers" by Kelsey Meyer and was reminded of some important truths regarding reading. The first is that reading (particularly re-reading) specific books and articles can remind you about important concepts and inspirations lost in the daily shuffle. Leaders must always sharpen their minds. Secondly, reading challenges you, especially when you read something that directly challenges your opinions. Understanding the rhetoric of "the other side" allows leaders to think both creatively and logically, which are necessary in today's environment. Finally, reading gives you an opportunity to interact with others, or at least provides leaders with something to say, debate, or discuss.

I offer a few additional pointers with respect to reading.

1. Never read a book, magazine, or newspaper article without a pen or pencil nearby. If you own the book, write in the margins! For those who switched to e-readers, make full use of all those annotation tools. The point is that your best thinking occurs when you engage with the author by writing your thoughts and opinions next to the text. Some of the best wisdom of the ages was written in the margins of famous books. Look up "marginalia" and see what you find.

2. Keep a notebook or journal handy. Sometimes the margins are not large enough to fully record your thoughts and opinions. You need a bigger page. Plus, I find it is often better to review my private notes than re-read the actual passage in the book. As such, I encourage you to keep an old-fashioned private journal. Electronic memos are nice. However, there is something about recording your thoughts in your own handwriting that firmly implants the idea or concept into your thinking.

3. Read (or re-read) the classics and study philosophy. The more I read, the more I find references to classic literature, poems, and commentaries. Do not let the classics or philosophical concepts intimidate you. If you are having trouble with the text, symbolism, or general meaning, I highly recommend purchasing Spark Notes or use the internet as you read along. It is amazing what you find when you word skip or hyperlink through a particular text. Plus, this habit improves self-learning; a multiplier in terms leadership development. 

Note: I am currently reading about the influence of Bergsonian philosophy on the writings of T.S. Eliot. Ask me why later.

Why mentoring?
"The first duty of a leader is to grow more leaders." - General Wilbur L. Creech

These words offer insight into building powerful organizations. Yet, it is difficult to grow more leaders without active, continual, face-to-face mentoring. Mentoring absolutely requires human interaction. There is no cookbook, manual or guide to growing leaders "from the comfort of your chair." Leaders must directly engage with followers, peers, and superiors. Intuitively, we all understand this principle. However, there is lots of research to support this claim.

Communication theory is probably the most fascinating of this research. Building on the works of Walter Ong, Harold Innis, and Marshall McLuhan (my personal favorite), it is clear why human interaction remains vital; especially in the age of social media. In short, McLuhan states, "in acoustic space, information is simultaneous (i.e., sense by immediate analogy). In visual space, information is sequential (i.e., sense by cause-and-effect logic)." Which do you think is better in terms of cementing a message or a culture? (Hint: go read/study/decide for yourself)

Getting back to mentoring, here are a few practical pointers for leaders.

1. Listen to people more. It is human nature to want to talk about ourselves. So find ways to let people express themselves in initial one-on-one conversations. Establish this connection first; the "business end" of mentoring will come later. Read Jeffrey Gitomer's Little Black Book of Connections to see how this is done, then get out there and make those connections!

2. Pay close attention to non-verbal cues, facial expressions, and voice inflections. Did you know that 55 percent of communication is body language, 38 percent is the tone of voice, and 7 percent is the actual words spoken? So how do you hone these skills? (Hint: talk to people more - it is in our human DNA).

3. Keep notes about the conversation in your journal. You do not need to record everything about your conversation. Simply document the content and tone of the meeting. This may lead you to ask for more information on your next encounter and will help hone your "semiotic" sense--making you a better leader in return.

Note: Read Umberto Eco's A Theory of Semiotics and his novel, The Name of the Rose (or watch the movie) for a deeper look at semiotics.

Can I separate these two habits and still be a successful leader?
To wrap this up, I believe it is impossible to separate these habits if one is truly seeking to become an ideal leader. I know I can prove it. However, I am at exactly 1,000 words for this article. "Hanc marginis exiguitas non caperet." Dang it! You'll get the irony if you can connect the dots.