Gumption: Lead or Be Led

In this speech, AJ Kahler emphasizes that true leadership, rooted in trust and exemplified by initiative and resourcefulness (gumption), transcends contexts and can be cultivated through clear, responsible decision-making and empowering team members.


Leadership is a skill that transcends human experience. I think sometimes we forget just how universal the concept is when we use the term in the workplace. We tend to forget that true leadership, when boiled down to its basic ingredients, is the same whether we are leading a football team, a robotics team, or an engineering firm. The actions required day-to-day may be different, but the core philosophy remains intact. To be a successful, well-rounded leader is a complex achievement that many authors and speakers have tried to boil down into books, essays, and speeches. At the end of the day, leadership is something that must be adaptable. We need to understand leadership at its basic level so we can re-apply the concepts to work in our environment.

At its core, leadership boils down to trust, and there are no shortcuts when it comes to trust. Trust is earned the hard way, through repetitive action. Essentially, you must be a leader before you can ever BE a leader. You must act like a leader, do the things leaders do, before your leadership is ratified by the ones you lead. And once we reach that, the work doesn’t’ stop, because, as we all know, trust is more easily lost than gained.

If I could boil down the symptoms of true leadership into one word, it would be – GUMPTION. I have tossed around the idea of gumption being an “untrainable” talent, something that some people “just have.” I am beginning to believe that anyone can exhibit gumption and that it is a combination of an individual’s personal drive and the correct leadership.

              “Gumption: shrewd, or spirited initiative and resourcefulness.”

If anyone needs an example of what I mean when I say gumption, look at Jason Markesino. Gumption is the team member who does…what needs to be done. It’s the team member who never has an excuse. We all know who these people are, and I think we can all agree, if everyone had Jason’s natural level of gumption, well we could do more with less. It is my belief that through high-level leadership, we can increase the amount of gumption exhibited by our team members.

At this point we have touched on a little bit of everything. We touched on what leadership boils down to, trust, and how that is something we must constantly work for. We talked about one of the most positive symptoms of leadership which is a team who will go to the end of the earth for their leader and team. So, you should all be wondering, WHAT DO WE HAVE TO ACTUALLY DO? Well, that should be kind of obvious at this point. If, as a leader, we want to trust that our team members will go to the end of the earth for us, they need to trust that we will do the same for them! We need to remember most of us are leading...ENGINEERS. We are not leading a kids’ soccer team; we are not leading minimum-wage employees at Target. We are leading young men and women who chose a career path known to harbor the smartest individuals on the planet. On top of that, we do our due diligence to make sure we are hiring people who have the traits of the "Ideal Team Player" (hunger, humble, smart). We have to honestly ask ourselves as leaders what do WE need to do so that our engineers feel so inspired that they put forth a "Markesino" amount of effort.

We can start by letting our engineers simply…be engineers. I believe the most important first step we can take is decision making. But that is not as “easy” as it sounds. The goal here is trust. So, when our engineers come to us to make the difficult decisions, trust will be built if…

  1. We make definitive, clear decisions.
  2. We make the decisions in a timely manner.
  3. Our engineers KNOW that if that decision was incorrect, WE as the leaders will take full responsibility for the outcome.

My mentor once told me, as my career progresses, I will evolve slowly from an individual contributor who makes hundreds of small technical decisions every day to eventually a leader who will make sometimes less than five decisions a day that will be far more important, with many more people effected by the outcome. That is what I believe to be the first step. Accepting the burden and responsibility of the hard decisions.

Lead or Be Led. It is a mantra I have grown to live by. You either let life take you where it wants, or you dot your i’s and cross your t’s, and do the work to stack the odds in your favor. People tend to blame other’s repetitive success on luck. This is a trick to avoid the obligation of comparing themselves to the leaders of the world. It is my goal to build a team here at AMT with such strong leadership and positive culture that others make excuses so they don’t have to be compared to us. But that goal requires action, not talk. So, today I challenge all of you to take responsibility and lead.

Click to learn more about AJ Kahler.

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