Sunday, December 29, 2013

The 10 best... er, the 7 leading... oh, whatever

My brother Chris exhorted me to write about the 10 (or X) greatest leaders of our time… or some time. He told me that I too often write about the failings of our institutional leaders.   I should write about the good guys for a change, he says. 

I thought about it for a while and decided to reject the idea. Why?  Because it’s been done (and done and done).  Time magazine created a list of 100 Most Influential People in the World.  How can I top that?  The Harvard Business Review tells us that to be a better leader is to have a richer life.  HBR exhorts us to “be real”, “be whole” and “be innovative”.  Am I going to quibble with Harvard? 

Beside, in this world of cable news, the Drudge Report and hyper-partisan politics, someone would attack any name I could come up with.  After all, even great leaders are only human.  And, there will always be someone in the media who can identify their all too human faults.  Indeed, being named a great leader might be the equivalent of the Sports Illustrated curse.  Get your picture on the cover and you’re heading for a fall. 

But I thought about Chris’s idea anyhow.  It’s too compelling.  Maybe I could come up with a month-by-month example for the year 2013.  December:  Mandela... 

The best writers in the world have eulogized him and who do I think I am anyway?

In November, we paused to reflect on the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.  JFK was a great leader for his generation.  His inaugural appeal to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” was a perfect message for the WW II generation who had lived through the pain of the Great Depression and the suffering of the big war.  His call to the nation to “commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth” not because it was easy but because it was hard resonates even today.

Yet, historian Paul Johnson paints him as a womanizing lout who was addicted to painkillers in his book, A History of the American People.

Is nothing sacred?

So, how do we define leadership in this new millennium?  How can we identify exemplars without fear that they will be brought down by the cynical human urge that too often rules the day?

Perhaps I should focus on the ingredients that make a great leader.  Business Insider lists the “10 Behaviors All of the Greatest Leaders Have in Common”. 

10??  Are you kidding me?

First, we must realize that no one exhibits all 10 behaviors of great leaders.  And, even those who come close are subject to the inconsistencies of their humanity. 

Oracle President Mark Hurd reduces the list to 5.  To be a great leader, he says you must be good at: 
1) Getting the strategy right.
2) Executing that strategy.
3) Putting the right people in the right places.
4) Managing dual priorities that others see as conflicting.
5) Keeping everyone focused on what matters.
Well, that might work for the shareholders.  But what about the rest of us?  Apple’s late founder and CEO might be the best example of a leader who fits Hurd’s model but if you were one of the folks who helped him start the company and later got screwed out of your stock options, you might not think of him as a great leader. 

Consultant and author Don Schmincke of Saga Leadership simplifies it further.  He would tell you it’s all about “the story”.  Leadership requires that we commit to a common cause that’s bigger than ourselves by creating a compelling story.  And, it requires that we gain the commitment of others to that bigger thing by consistently telling and living that story.  As author Simon Sinek so eloquently puts it, “it’s not what you do; it’s why you do it”.

For JFK, it was to inspire a nation to make the sacrifices necessary to do great things – a moon shot, civil rights, the Cold War.

For Steve Jobs, it was a commitment to elegant design.

For Nelson Mandela, it was to succeed as a nation after a century of repression. 

Each of them told a compelling story to an audience for whom the message resonated.  Each leader had failings as human beings.  Each could be (and has been) criticized for their personal and professional failings.

And, yet each is a great leader in his own right. 

Sorry, Chris.   I can’t come up with a list of 10, or even 5 of the greatest leaders. Each of us responds to different messages in different ways.  If I am a cynic, perhaps it’s because I grew up in the time of Eisenhower and JFK.  It was a time when the nation had common cause, when corporate leaders saw themselves as having responsibilities toward their communities, including their employees. 

Common cause seems to be a thing of the past.  Yet, people – whether as citizens, shareholders or employees – crave leadership.  So, I still have to ask…



  1. John Cheek CPA I noticed that no one currently in Washington (or Albany) seems eligible for the list.

  2. Your latest issue was one of your best and, I might add, most interesting. In music terms, Who Will Lead? has gone from a piano solo to a full orchestral performance.

    Ed B.

  3. Happy New Year, John!

    Great as always.

    If Kennedy’s picture was taken today, the stands behind him would have been filled….even if it was for press staging purposes.

    Your comments brought to mind that great leadership to me is someone, in their particular space and time and to the audience that matters to them (partners, employees, customers, suppliers, even brand acknowledgers, etc.), who is perceived to have gained their audiences trust in accomplishing a meaningful objective. Julie refers to this as transactional trust. As you point out, even “great” leaders lose sometimes as well, but their constituency remains satisfied because they trusted that the leader spearheaded the good fight with a mission directed at benefitting the constituency. One quintessential is that, in the end, the mission has to be satisfying to the constituency. If this ingredient is not present, even those who successfully lead the charge will lose their appeal as being “great” (e.g. Bush in the final months; Obama if his term were to end before the cure of Obamacare, etc.). I wonder if the real mark of a great leader is someone who is viewed by history as being “great” (by those people with no dog in the fight at the time of achieving greatness).

    I think an interesting follow up to your article would be about the emerging standard to which a great leader will have to aspire in our growing world without information boundaries. As a leader’s humanity is exposed (errors, omissions, faults, phobias, misguided steps, and even their historical indiscretions----no, nothing is sacred), what must one do to carry the perception of “great”? Perhaps this is where the liberals will have to win by redefining honorable actions, moral standards, acceptable norms, or else no one will ever make the mark of being a great leader. But, then again, conservatives have some hope too since life is relative to those who live it at the time….perhaps for a reason.

    Talk with you soon…thanks for the thinking!


  4. I think the thing I remember most from my days at Annapolis is "Lead, Follow or get out of the Way!" This has always stuck with me and has not always endeared me to those around me, but it has allowed me to accomplish things that I might not have even tried. Having been entrepreneurial all my life, starting at the age of 9, on Saturdays selling the Los Angeles Sunday paper on a street corner in downtown Riverside for a year in 1950. Earned enough to buy a bicycle, which 3 weeks later was stolen. Did I give up, no I got temp jobs as a substitute newspaper boy, delivering the paper routes for others for a quarter a day, using their bicycle. That was the beginning of many startups, none of which ever made it big, but I have had a wonderful life, had a lot of success and a lot of failures, but never quit. I have now retired to Panama to live at the beach, something I could not do in the U.S., but have I quit, heck no, already working to help others build their businesses and I am starting 2 new Internet based companies.
    Thanks for another great "rant" John and I mean that kindly, your rants are extremely well done.

  5. Doug Mitchell
    Lead Test Engineer at Alion Science and Technology

    Good article. A bit concerning that after Hurd's 50% reduction of required leadership qualities that the greatest country in the world still doesn't have any obvious candidates... Not even collectively.

  6. Fred Lutz
    Chief Operating Officer at Anchor Applications, Inc

    Shorty from "City Slickers" reminded his charges to focus on the most important thing. Perhaps successful leaders are able to keep a laser-like organizational focus on the most important long term process while regularly dealing with the various alligators stirring in the swamp.

  7. Robert Spencer
    Founder and CEO, Spencer Enterprises Inc.

    Do people want leadership or do they just prefer to follow? A question for the ages. Very nice article, John.

  8. Do people want leadership or do they just prefer to follow? A question for the ages. Very nice article, John.
    By Robert Spencer

  9. Thanks for the engaging piece, John. It was right on.

    I concur with Doug above - where are the inspirational leaders of yesteryear who can rise above partisan politics give us a vision of greatness to which we can collectively aspire? Certainly not in Washington, or many of our State Capitals.