McDonnell, a former lieutenant colonel in the United States Army and former Attorney General of Virginia, spoke candidly about the qualifications of a successful leader before a crowd of 500 at the Chesapeake Conference Center.
"Most of what I can tell you about leadership I've learned the hard way," McDonnell said. "It's one thing to know principles in your heart, but to have them tested is another thing entirely."
McDonnell used his breadth of personal experiences to outline the keys to leading successfully. "First, if you're going to enter leadership, you have to know what you believe in," he said. "Storms of life will always come, and you will be tested. You have to be able to stand firm in what you believe."
Second, "surrounding yourself with good people is critically important. I surround myself with outstanding support," McDonnell said, praising his staff members and advisors. "But leaders also must have the wisdom to let them do their jobs. Effort is nice, but results matter. Equip your people; then let them do what you've asked them to do in order to get results."
Quoting Jim Collins' research of management published in the book "Good to Great," McDonnell then differentiated between top-tier leaders and mediocre leaders. "The defining characteristic of the Level 5 leader was the 'X factor': humility."
This is where the concept of servant leadership is born out. "Great leaders are ambitious and driven to get things done, but not for themselves," McDonnell explained. "They do it for the organization and to move others forward."
The Bible affirms this idea in the gospel of Matthew with the words of Jesus: "the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve" (20:28).
"So much of servant leadership boils down to humility," McDonnell said, referencing President Reagan's leadership role in the non-violent fall of the Iron Curtain as an example. "It's amazing what you can get done when you don't care who gets the credit."
Next, McDonnell emphasized the importance of vision and measurement. "My team sets out a strategic plan, and then we have regular meetings to inspect and measure results," he explained.
He also encouraged leaders to keep their focus. "There's only so much you can do well," he said, citing his initial gubernatorial campaign plan with 55 points on it. The ultimate plan was pared down to three points and one overarching theme: "Bob's for Jobs." So far, McDonnell has made good on that campaign, as Virginia has one of the lowest unemployment rates east of the Mississippi River.
Lastly, McDonnell expounded upon the importance of having people get on board with the vision. "You might have the best ideas in the world, but it doesn't matter if you don't have 51 percent of the vote to carry them out. You have to communicate the vision and get people on board."
All of his accomplishments as governor, from the recently passed transportation bill to the budgetary surplus the state has maintained during his term, "have been made possible by people working together to get things done," he concluded.
McDonnell left the audience with reflections on America's leadership through history and thoughts on his favorite U.S. president, George Washington. "Washington could have been king, but he willingly walked away from power for the good of the nation," he said. "These values that make America the greatest nation in the world are what have brought us so much prosperity. If we will follow the admonitions of our forefathers, we will continue to be the greatest nation in the world."
Visit the ELS website for more information about upcoming speakers.
By Amanda Morad
Photo by Alex Perry