On Leadership

A comment from reader Barry Klein, in response to Seth Godin's post about the way we evaluate leaders got me thinking: we really do judge the quality of our leaders only in hindsight, and that's more than a little bit silly.

Seth Godin mentioned several 'great leaders' in his original post: Abe Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, among others. Why are they great? Probably because they won, or came out on top, in the great challenges of their day. Lincoln held the Union together and abolished slavery; Churchill held fast and presided over victory in WWII; Truman helped rebuild Europe with his sweeping nation-building plan in the war's wake.

The caliber of each of these men, before their victory, was a matter of hot debate. As our reader Barry Klein mentions: "Every one of the leaders mentioned were very polarizing in their days. For every person that loved them, you could point to someone who hated them with equal passion."

Had Churchill's side not won the war, perhaps he'd be remembered now as a raving madman, not an inspiring orator of unflagging courage. Had Lincoln not succeeded in holding together the North and South, he would simply have been that crazy president who started the war that killed more Americans than any other in the country's history. Had Truman not presided over passage of the Marshall Plan, he might have been best remembered as the lame-duck president whose party actually asked him not to help with a Congressional campaign because his public standing was so low...Yet in a recent C-SPAN survey of more than 80 historians, Lincoln now ranks 3rd and Truman ranks 12th on the list of all-time greatest presidents, largely on the strength of their scores in the "crisis leadership" category.

The point is this: Shouldn't we get to work figuring out how to better evaluate our prospective leaders before they take office? If crisis management is the differentiator, could we require an accounting of their performance in all previous crises to see how they handled the pressure? Are there qualities that can be sussed out prior to ascending to positions of great power that indicate how a leader will react while on the hot seat? Something beyond "energy" and "edge"?

Tell us what you think...maybe it will help us all make a better choice going into this next Presidential election. Or at the very least, maybe we could circulate it at board meetings around the country before the next generation of CEOs are chosen.