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.

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  • David Eckholdt

    Result are everything. Maybe we shouldn't use resulst to say someone is or isn't a leader but rather to determine whether someone is good versus bad leader.

  • Donald E. L. Johnson

    Jim's insights are very important, and suggest this question: Do any of our current candidates (includng Bush) fit these pathological traits?

    I can think of one and he's not a factor. They're all glib, none have superficial charm, all are manipulative and a bit conning and all have big egoes. Three have a grandiose sense of self---Clark, Kucinich, Sharpton.

    We all know who on the Dem side is considered by many as a pathological liar without shame or remorse, and, again, he's not a real challenger.

  • Jim Berkowitz

    Well, I think a leader is a leader. By that I mean that they have traits like the 4 E's discussed by Jack Welch which they use to become and ultimately lead people.

    I do not believe that leadership require ethics or a strong sense of morality. Some leaders (ex. cult leaders) can even be sociopaths. According to a Profile of a Sociopath, these people have traits that include:

    *Glibness/Superficial Charm
    *Manipulative and Conning
    *Grandiose Sense of Self
    *Pathological Lying
    *Lack of Remorse, Shame or Guilt

    Unfortunately, these are traits that I believe a number of the recently fallen business leaders have in common.

    A leader can use his skills for good, or for bad. It is up to the followers to determine if a leader has the ethical and moral foundation that they seek. During my business career, I have run into leaders (managers and executives) that had a number of the sociopathic traits that I've noted above and I've done everything I could to get away from them. In politics, however, it seems to me that a lot of marketing and "branding" techniques are used by the people running the candidates campaigns since for the vast majority of the voting public, electing new leaders is nothing more then a superficial popularity contest. This scares me. Just think of the presidential candidate portrayed by Martin Sheen not in "The West Wing," but in the original movie "The Dead Zone." If Johnny (Christopher Walkin's character) wasn't willing to sacrifice his life for the good of the world, we would have been under the control of a very "evil" leader indeed.

    The bottom line is, whether in business, politics or any other organized group, it's up to the "people" to thoroughly educate themselves about their current and potential leaders, to not follow these folks blindly and to exercise their right of free speech, etc. to make sure that leaders with poor moral or ethical backbones or who have any of the above sociopathic traits are not put in power and if they are, they are removed as quickly as possible.

  • Donald E. L. Johnson

    Lincoln, Grant, T. Roosevelt, Truman, George W. Bush.

    What do they have in common?

    Lincoln, Grant, T. Roosevelt, Churchill. Truman. Strong writers. Clear thinkers. Courage. Determination. Creative. Focused. Integrity. Risk takers.

    Lincoln, Grant, TR, Churchill, HST, GWB. Wars. Tough decisions. Clear thinkers. Focused. Courage. Integrity.

    The only characteristic GWB doesn't seem to have that the others do is a record of great writing. He's certainly in a big war on terroism, taking big personal career risks and as single minded about winning this war as his predecessors were focused on winning theirs. None of these guys made a big deal of their religions. None of them were spellbinding speakers, or used their speeches to motivate. They led by example, getting things done, succeeding where success was unexpected. Offending the establishment.

    Each was a terrific politician. They all thought for themselves as well as listening to their constituents. That they polarized their countries showed they had the courage of their convictions and that they won their wars showed they were good at executing their plans.

    Look at the Dem candidates. Kerry has a record of trying to play both sides. I think he'd be another Clinton, unable to make decisions. But he's proved he has personal courage, but whether he has political courage remains to be seen. I seriously doubt his political integrity and judgment.

    Dean has been flip flopping all year and playing the opportunist's game. He doesn't have personal or political courage. Clark is the John McClellan of the campaign, the reluctant warrior, unable to move, paralysis through analysis, a staffer, not a general, inept. Fired for personal integrity reasons.

    Edwards is the mystery guy who shows promise, willing to stand apart from the crowd, take on the establishment, think for himself, a good communicator who probably writes better than anyone else in the field and therefore, one of the clearist thinkers and best decision makers. He has made a career of being a fighter.

    Lieberman shows courage. He's articulate, focused and has more integrity than his competitors, but is as opportunistic as any modern presidential candidate.

    In our own way, the American people will try to sort these things out. In 2000, we elected a real president, a leader. But more often than not, Americans have elected weenies to the White House. I think we will keep our war president, but who knows. It's hard to predict because so many world events can happen to influence voters between now and November.

  • Chris Corrigan

    I was faced with this problem over the past year. For years my partner and I have wanted to gather together emerging leaders in First Nations communities across British Columbia and connect them up. Our first task was to define what constituted the kind of leadership we were looking for.

    In the end we decided upon a criteria that included things like:

    * a passion for working locally, committed to community
    * an ability to make real change, keeping the focus on key levers rather than titling at windmills
    * fresh ideas and a demonstrated willingness to learn and engage with innovation.
    * an ability to transcend day-to-day politics and keep the big picture in mind.

    Not surprisingly it was difficult to find these folks, because by definition they were all working away in their communities and rarely got a chance to meet each other.

    In the end we pulled together 70 people representing what we felt were significant emerging leaders in our province and we put them in an Open Space Technology meeting for a day and a half to look at the leadership challenges facing their communities over the next 20 years.

    The results were amazing, the most important of which was that these people actually met. Several began projects together which will ripen over time. Fostering connections and bringing new leadership styles and energy to the process was really eye opening for a lot of folks.

    You can read more at http://www.bcafn.com where you find a link to the .pdf of the conference proceedings.

    Bottom line: we looked at defining leadership by CAPACITY and POTENTIAL rather than results.