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…
WHO WILL LEAD?