Great leaders can create or save a country or company. Awful ones can shatter them, destroying billions of dollars or millions of lives. And, while this may seem impossible, the best and worst leaders can be surprisingly similar.
We can all think of leaders who, because they were incompetent or mad or simply evil, would have been a catastrophe under any circumstances. Many, however, fail for subtler reasons. Leaders find both their greatest successes and their greatest failures usually come from doing things that most people, in the same situation, would not do. When such decisions work out, we idolize the people who made them.
For example, few executives would deliberately cannibalize the sales of their most profitable product. But we know that Steve Jobs' creation of the iPhone— which cannibalized the iPod—revolutionized an industry and eventually turned Apple into the world's most valuable company. Most of the time, though, when experts tell you something is a bad idea—they're right. We tend to remember the successes and forget the failures in business, because when a CEO makes that sort of catastrophic mistake, his or her company becomes less noticeable. Or vanishes entirely.
So a great leader is one who makes unique individual decisions—and is right. Yet "be right" is not particularly helpful advice, and some successful leaders were probably just lucky. They took their stands and the circumstances matched their preferences—but in a different situation, they would have failed. So what distinguishes leaders who are genuinely great from ones who were just lucky?
To answer that question, let's look at Abraham Lincoln. When historians rank the Presidents of the United States, they usually put Lincoln at the top, and he's rarely lower than third. Of all the leaders I have studied, Lincoln is the one I am most certain was truly great. This is because Lincoln, uniquely, combined the highest levels of two seemingly antagonistic traits. Lincoln was both supremely confident and supremely humble.
Confidence allows a leader to chart his or her own course, whatever others say.
Humility lets a leader acknowledge the possibility that he or she is wrong, listen to and take seriously those who disagree, and by doing so avoid needless mistakes.
Lincoln's presidency—and his life—were marked by both confidence and humility many times. During the crisis over Fort Sumter that began the Civil War, for example, Lincoln struggled with William Henry Seward, his Secretary of State, over Northern policy. Advice from Seward deserved to be taken seriously. He was one of the founding fathers of the Republican Party, a two-term Senator, and a two-term governor of New York. The dominant figure in the Republican Party, Seward was vastly more qualified to be president than Lincoln. Lincoln's only pre-presidential national political office was a single term in Congress. Seward thought that the South was bluffing about secession and urged that Fort Sumter be ceded peacefully. He expected this would cool the "secessionist fever" and that in a few months the South would return to the Union. If this failed, he wanted to provoke a war with Spain or France in the belief that such a conflict would unify the country. When Lincoln demurred, Seward suggested that Lincoln cede him control of the Administration.
Lincoln, however, understood that the South was very serious about secession, and that the North was deeply divided on whether to fight to maintain the Union. He rebuffed Seward's attempt to seize power, telling him, "If this must be done, I must do it." He announced that he was sending an unarmed convoy to resupply Sumter. South Carolina then fired on Sumter, beginning the war. The news that the South had fired the first shot instantly unified the North behind the war effort.
Lincoln was confident enough to ignore advice. He didn't do it all the time, though.
In July 1862, Lincoln told the Cabinet that he had decided to issue an Emancipation Proclamation. The war effort, however, was going extraordinarily badly. Seward cautioned Lincoln that issuing the Proclamation then would be seen "as the last measure of an exhausted government…our last shriek, on the retreat." Lincoln deferred to the political judgment of his Secretary of State and held back on the Proclamation until the North's victory at the Battle of Antietam. On January 1, 1863, he declared that all slaves in parts of the South not under control of the federal government "are, and henceforward shall be free." So Lincoln was humble enough to listen to Seward, and even defer to his judgment, if his arguments were reasonable ones.
Lincoln's masterpiece, his Second Inaugural Address, is the ultimate expression of his combination of these two traits. The duality is perfectly captured in a single clause towards the end: "with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right." The first half is a proclamation of implacable resolve, a determination to see things through whatever the cost. Only the most supremely confident person could send hundreds of thousands more young men into battle based, in the end, on nothing more than his own judgment. The second half is a statement of utter humility, the acknowledgment by a man who had plunged his nation into a conflict that cost tens of thousands of lives that he might have been wrong. George W. Bush might have said the first part, but not the second. Jimmy Carter might have said the second part, but not the first. Lincoln had many qualities associated with a great leader, but it is his ability to combine these two directly opposed traits into an integrated whole that was the rarest, and most essential, quality that made him a transcendently great leader.