With the election looming and the two most disliked presidential candidates in history vying for the office, I find myself contemplating a topic I used to teach many years ago: Leadership. In the course of the developing that course I did extensive research reading literally dozens of books on the topic. (OK, I read 22 and three of them were pop-up books and another was a coloring book, but still it was a lot of work.) There’s no shortage of people who write books on leadership, even though there seems to be a scarcity of real leaders. You don’t need a book -- or even this article -- to tell you what constitutes a good leader. Most of you know intuitively what it takes to lead, so let this serve not as a “how to” guide, as much as a reminder of what it takes to be a genuine leader.
I guess I should begin by disclosing one of my most deeply held biases: Business leaders are born, not made. They are forged in the crucible of crisis and honed in the conference rooms of the corporate world. A person who does not have the traits to be a great leader isn’t likely to miraculously acquire them, but that’s a matter of opinion and fodder for a different article.
Dr. Wess Roberts in his 1990 work, Leadership Secrets Of Attila The Hun, identified seven key characteristics. Other authors have waxed on about the leadership styles of everyone from Genghis Khan to Kermit the Frog to Sitting Bull to Charles Manson. (OK, probably not Charles Manson.) While there is anything but consensus on the topic, I’d like to submit the following subset of all the leadership dross that’s floating around out there. Let’s call mine "Leadership Secrets Phil La Duke Stole From Famous People." (Just kidding, I don’t plagiarize.)
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When I taught that leadership course, we covered 17 characteristics of effective leaders, and there might be more. But here are my top five favorites, the ones my experience has taught me are most crucial.
People are more likely to follow someone whose reactions are predictable. I’ve worked for some great leaders who were feared by one and all, blowing up when subordinates erred, throwing furniture at the walls, and calling underlings everything but a child of God. But those same subordinates worshiped these ogres with the reverence that the acid-addled deserters have for Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.
Knowing exactly how your leader will react to your successes and failures allows you to take risks and behave with a minimum of stress. Patton may have slapped a soldier and Woody Hayes roughed up a player, but in both cases the people who followed each would willingly walk through the bowels of hell for him.
Harry Truman had a sign on his office that read: “The buck stops here.” It meant, “I am ultimately accountable for anything that happens on my watch.” This is a refreshing sentiment at a time when baby boomer leaders belly ache about millennial entitlement, while at the same time blaming any and all their missteps on media misquotes, things being blown out of proportion, or a curse placed on them at birth by an evil troll. How long before we can get back to leaders who say, “I did it. The blame is mine and mine alone”?
A good leader can be trusted. When we feel betrayed because a boss promised a raise or a promotion that didn’t happen, we become dispirited and have no motivation to make the sacrifices that same boss needs us to make. We may do what they tell us to do, but we may also engage in malicious obedience.
I once worked for an executive who told me that if I wanted to be promoted, I would have to leave the company. He explained that while I was a valued member of the team I would always remain a “sole contributor.” I didn’t like the message but I was glad that he was honest with me. It was empowering knowing that no matter how hard I worked I was stuck where I was. It turned out he was wrong. In part because I didn’t let his view of the world affect my performance, I ended up being promoted twice before leaving the company for greener pastures. I knew that I could trust him, not just to be fair with me but also to be honest and to tell me the unpleasant truths I needed to hear.
When Pancho Villa died, his last words were reputed to be, “It can’t end like this, tell them I said…something.” The best leaders have a clear and articulate vision for life. We know what they stand for. What’s more, a good leader can inspire us to put aside our own wants, needs, and desires in favor of a greater good.
This is why we revere military leaders so much. Generals have to inspire people to die for their visions. Think about that. Our bodies are designed primarily to keep us alive and well, and military leaders need to motivate us to do something that every cell in our central nervous system is telling us not to.
To lead is to make unpopular decisions that need to be made without regard to whether people are going to like it. I worked with a CEO who had to cut 400 jobs, a substantial portion of the workforce. I remember someone telling him that the people weren’t going to like it. He looked them straight in the eye and said, “I don’t like it, but either we do this now or 5,000 people lose their jobs in six months.”
We don’t follow people because we like them -- hell, I can think of a score of people I like who I wouldn’t follow out of a burning building. But there is a handful I would follow even when they seemed at odds with my values. No one follows a leader who is afraid to fail, afraid to make a mistake, afraid to admit mistakes, or afraid to lead.