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Great leaders listen.

That's one of the most important pieces of leadership advice I've ever received. And it came from one of the leaders I admire most: retired U.S. Army Gen. H. Hugh Shelton.

General Shelton was chairman of Red Hat’s board of directors for seven years and, before that, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1997‒2001. During his time at Red Hat, General Shelton helped guide both me and our organization through some truly great times. When he announced his retirement from Red Hat’s board last year, I jumped at the chance to sit down with him one more time and do what he taught me: listen.

I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about how post-industrial, open organizations are changing the nature of leadership. And while much of General Shelton’s leadership experience stems from his time in the military—which is notoriously hierarchical and much more bureaucratic than, say, an open organization—I’ve learned from him that great leadership lessons transcend time and space, and can be applicable anywhere. The General is full of those lessons and I want to do my part to share them.

When we sat down to talk, I began by asking him to define leadership. He told me simply that leadership “is one’s ability to influence others.”

Great leaders, he continued, are the kinds of people who genuinely care about others, who help people find and use their voices in an organization, who create team cultures that inspire excellence, who reinforce the founding principles that make an organization a community, and who empower people to do their best work. No matter the industry and no matter the era, those characteristics can make someone an effective leader—or, as General Shelton put it, "an individual I'd follow to Hades."

We’ve collected more of General Shelton’s wisdom in our Leadership Lessons video series. I hope leaders of all stripes find it valuable. Enjoy!

Jim Whitehurst is president and chief executive officer at Red Hat.

 

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