One of the key things in making this world work better is leadership.
Everyone knows a great leader when they see one in action. Great leaders are inspiring and charismatic.
People all have an opinion of what it takes to be a great leader. The prescription is neither universal nor foolproof. There are countless books, articles, and seminars on leadership and improving ones leadership skills. Everyone has an opinion about what it takes but far fewer ever become a memorable leader. There are many of us in leadership positions in varying capacities. Just being in a position is no guarantee that the person in that position will be a good and effective leader. There are countless examples of people who believe they are great leaders but no one in their organizations would agree.
What then makes a good leader? Is it an innate trait? Or, can the skill be developed and honed? While there are countless other attempts to answer these questions, I will attempt to answer these questions from my own perspective. I am sure the attempt will be incomplete. I am pretty certain because of the incompleteness that I will address it again in the future.
The Republican Candidates: This month’s letter was motivated from thinking about the slate of Republican candidates for President of these United States. There have been a lot of twists and turns in who is in the lead of this race since the summer. As in the past several elections, I found myself asking "Is this the best we can do?" I actually thought about making this letter about the dearth of leadership in this country. But the more I wrote, it became an essay on leadership in general.
Before I get too deeply into this question, allow me to provide some background.
I am not an avid follower of current events and politics. The internet affords keeping up with breaking news in real time, so I kind of know what is going on. I read a bit of op-ed here and there. That is about it. I am not addicted to CNN or Fox News. I do not read every issue of any newspaper, magazine, or political blogs.
This being said, I am fascinated with the topsy-turvy state of the constantly changing front runner. In early December, it was reported that Newt Gingrich had a double digit lead over the field. Now, at the end of December, it is being reported that Mr. Gingrich’s lead is waning. It seems just a short few months ago, before the reports of sexual harassment, that Herman Cain was the front runner and a shoe in for the nomination. Before Herman Cain, there was a whole lot of buzz when Rick Perry, the Governor of Texas, entered the race until we found out he could not debate very well. Michele Bachmann seemed to be the second coming of Sarah Palin for all the plusses and minuses that implies. Ron Paul could also make a move as the primaries begin in January.
The odd thing about Gingrich is that he was one of the first to enter the race. He had some early buzz and then his entire staff quite en masse in early June. The sixteen in total that left claimed that the former Speaker of the House could not be convinced to run a focused, committed, and intense campaign. At that point, Gingrich was left for dead and was more of joke than a serious candidate. Look at him now.
Are the candidates fickle or is it the public? I understand that the debates, the campaigning, and the primaries are for the public to get to know the candidates. It is a time for the candidates to demonstrate that they can possibly function at the next level.
Mitt Romney perseveres. He is the Steady Eddie in all of this. He has been number one or number two to the revolving door of the other number ones for a day. His fortunes rise and fall as the others cycle through this revolving door. Perhaps he will be the nominee. Perhaps, he will be the candidate because he will be the last man standing. He certainly has poise and polish. He is well spoken. He is not an extremist candidate. He is a centrist. This can either help him or hurt him. Perhaps, this is why the Tea Party Republicans are not enthusiastic supporters. Mitt Romney is also Mormon. While a man of faith, it is not the same as the "having accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior" majority of the party.
Part of the problem is that the front runner is in the cross hairs of the media and opponent strategists. They will scour the front runner’s background for any newsworthy item. The more controversial their findings, the bigger the headlines will be. This is part of the vetting process. I heard a talking head on NPR when Cain's alleged improprieties first came to light. This expert on political campaigns basically said that the worst day on the campaign trail is like the best day of being President. It was good for the public to see how our potential next Presidents react to the pressure and heat. It weeds out those who can take it from those who can't. It also helps us see who has good character and who lack this trait.
What amazes me is that people think they can run for President and sincerely believe that anything and everything they have ever done or even simply been accused of will not come to light. Such people are either ridiculously naive or incredible ego maniacs to be so deluded. Either way, I would not vote for such people for President.
I kind of liked Cain's candidacy and sort of hoped he got the nomination. He had a fresh, tell it like it is, candor. His 9-9-9 plan was clever and well crafted from a marketing point of view. Whether it was the magic bullet to solve the woes of this country is entirely another matter. But, the major reason I liked Herman Cain and was hoping he would be the nominee would be to see how America would react to two black candidates. It would have been pretty good theater. How would they have played or not played the race card? Would the race card just be irrelevant? Would there have been a third party white candidate?
Early on in this section I posed a question: Is this the best we can do? I ask this in this Republican primary and I have asked in many of the past presidential elections. Is this really the best we can do? Where is the intelligence, the charisma, the game plan, and the track record of success? Barack Obama is often referred to as the smartest guy in the room. He has charisma. Yet, many people do not like him for a complicated variety of reasons. Does he get credit for not allowing the Great Recession to have become the Greatest Depression? Or, rather, is he a socialist goat for blocking our path to full recovery?
The Leadership Conundrum: Reagan and Clinton are now looked back at as great presidents. They were both intelligent and had charisma. They both presided over periods of emerging and growing prosperity. That may be the necessary criteria to be a great president: govern during a period of economic growth and staying out of the way. Gee... maybe I am a TEA party guy after all if not an outright Libertarian.
I have asked this question, "Is this the best we can do," in several recent Presidential elections. Great effective leaders are not commodities. They are not necessarily even the best and brightest even though being bright is certainly an asset. There are countless books written on leadership, what makes a good leader, and how to become one.
The main problem is that it is impossible to predict who will be a good and effective leader. Consider one of the great business leaders of the past twenty years: Jack Welch. He was obviously effective enough to be named CEO of General Electric but no one expected him to be so dynamic and as effective as he was. Akio Morita was a great leader of Sony. Steve Jobs was a great leader of Apple.
It is hard to predict who will become a good leader. The skills and determination that served one to progress up the ladder do not necessarily translate to success at the top. Great number twos may or may not make fantastic number ones. It does not matter if the people are voting for the number one or if the outgoing number one gets to choose his successor.
Think of football quarterbacks. It is the single hardest position in football to predict success at the pro-level. Great success at the college level is neither a necessary nor sufficient to guarantee success at the pro-level. Why is that? Even though there are numerous measures such as 40 yard dash time, throwing accuracy, interceptions, fumbles, yards offense, and so on, it is very hard to predict who will become a great pro quarterback. Think Ryan Leaf. Think of Tom Brady. Ryan Leaf was predicted to be a great quarterback in the pros and Brady... not so much. Circa the same incoming class was Peyton Manning. He was great in college and he was able to transition that greatness to the NFL.
I have read that the biggest unknown factor in moving from college to the pros is the pace of the game. The pro game is just that much faster. A quarterback has to be able to make decisions faster while keeping his calm. He has to be able to read defenses, adapt, and release the ball faster than he ever had to in college. There is no way to measure this until the quarterback is confronted with it. Will he be Ryan Leaf or Tom Brady?
The same thing applies to politics and business. The loneliness at the top, the gravity of decision making, the pace of decision making, and the ability to hold it all together are traits a President of the US and the President of GE both need. It is hard to predict who will succeed, who will fail, and who will be so-so when they are first elected or promoted. Much like the quarterback example, the speed of the game changes dramatically and not everyone can make the transition.
Hidden Agendas, Consistency, Constancy of Purpose and Authenticity: One of the key set of attributes of being a great leader, at least to me, is what W. Edwards Deming called Constancy of Purpose. What is the agenda of the leader? What are his or her goals? Are the goals clearly and consistently communicated to every that wants to or needs to know? These are the cornerstones on which great leadership is built.
Part of this is not having any hidden agendas. Hidden agendas are rarely one-off errors in judgment. The leaders who have hidden agendas do so habitually. Organizations with a culture of hidden agendas reward those potential leaders who are best at executing their hidden agendas. Hidden agendas usually create an atmosphere of angst, rumors, intrigue, suspiciousness, and paranoia. People sense something but they do not know what or where this is all coming from. It can fill the organization with a sense of foreboding.
Another part of this is the consistency with which the leader acts and reacts to the same kinds of situations. This even applies to a bad leader. In the negative case, the people working with or for the leader can reliably adapt their behavior and navigate around the leader if need be. The worst possible scenario is inconsistency. This tends to paralyze the organization with fear.
Both foreboding and fear are brought about by poor leadership. They cripple the effectiveness and potential of an organization. It all begins with the tone and example set by the leader and the lieutenants he places around him. If the leader is inconsistent or operating with hidden agendas these become the behaviors that will rise up and flourish in the organization be it industry or government.
A great leader has a consistency and forthright constancy of purpose that excites everyone and creates a positive organizational tension. That organizational tension brings the alignment and sense of urgency that makes people do more than they ever thought they were capable of. This is what great leadership can do. These are the memorable leaders who make a mark in our lives. These are the leaders for which people with go above and beyond to get execute the strategies and tactics set forth by the leader.
There is best summed up in a word I learned from Clyde Lowstuter the principal of Robertson Lowstuter. He calls it authenticity. Here is a definition from their website section on Core Beliefs:
Authenticity is the single most important determinant for individual and leadership success.
Leaders are authentic when they
1) have consistent alignment of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors;
2) take complete responsibility for the unintended impact their behavior and words have on others;
3) have the confidence and boldness to ‘walk the talk’ and
4) live their lives serving the greater organizational good.
Constancy of Purpose and Consistency are both in this definition of Authenticity. It is most definitely a necessary condition for great leadership.
Can a President get us to Go Above and Beyond?: This is an interesting question. The only context I have for this is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was President of the United States during the Great Depression and most of World War II. It was a dark and gloomy time in this country from what I have read and what I have been told. During his term of leadership, he got us to pull together in way that is mythic from my perspective. People were in a bad way from the Great Depression when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The US was instantly in World War II and the country was in dire straits. Roosevelt set a tone that the country followed. He had us rationing. He had us mobilized and volunteering to fight.
It might easily be argued that it is easy to lead in a time of crisis. The Great Depression and World War II provided a crisis severe enough for the President to provide that Constancy of Purpose and generate the creative tension to pull us through, to persevere, and to win. People were thirsting for leadership and he provided it.
We did not have the same unanimity during the recent Great Recession. We needed and wanted leadership. Either there was none or the leader we have was not able to convince of the sacrifices we collectively needed to make to right our ship. We had that special unanimity after 9-11-01 but it did not last. Crisis made George W. Bush a pretty good leader at that moment. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan stalled and the economy began to crumble, it did not last. We have yet to see Barack Obama provide much in this regard. I am not sure any of the Republicans running will be any better.
Answering the questions: I posed a few questions at the beginning of this meandering piece:
1. What then makes a good leader?
2. Is it an innate trait?
3. Or, can the skill be developed and honed?
I kind of answered the first. As for the second, I truly believe that leadership has a significant innate core. We have seen people that are just born with a natural charisma and the ability to get others to listen to and follow them. We have seen people that simply command authority.
This being said, I also believe that leadership skills can be learned and improved upon. I know several men and women who have nurtured their skills. Leadership is definitely part art form and style. Like most endeavors it is honed through practice and a desire for continuous improvement.
Some Great Leaders I have reported to: In thinking about my career, there are maybe three impressive bosses I have had: Bob Adams, Bob Martin, Dale Dvorak, Mike Corbo, and Howard Heckes. I reported to Bob Adams at Rockwell International. The other Bob, Dale, and Mike were all from Colgate-Palmolive. Howard Heckes was our division President I reported to at Newell Rubbermaid. I wanted to acknowledge them in this letter On Leadership.