Five Marks of Great Leader

Here’s a great column on leadership by Paul Johnson originally printed in Forbes Magazine, May 9, 2005.

In both business and politics leadership matters more than does any other personal factor. A country with a first-class leader can punch above its weight class (look at Britain under Margaret Thatcher). Admiration for a company’s chairman/ CEO is sure to be reflected in the share price. But what makes a real leader? How can we recognize one?

Moral courage. This matters most. It is the willingness to stick to one’s beliefs, to pursue a course of action in the face of overwhelming criticism, great adversity and, not least, the faintheartedness of friends and allies. This kind of courage is always in short supply–and never more so than today. President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair have demonstrated it in standing by their Iraq policy, now seen to be a success but earlier marked by a long period of disheartening reversals. The late John Paul II also exhibited moral courage. He put the principles in which he believed at the center of his actions, defying criticism inside and outside his church.

A single spasm of courage is not enough. It is that which is shown over the long haul that demands the most of a man or woman and ultimately brings the best results. That was the kind of obstinate, persistent, self-reinforcing courage shown by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and Winston Churchill during the lonely struggle against Hitler. It was notably lacking during the Vietnam War–the reason that war was lost. It is, however, present in Iraq, where victory is now within our grasp.

Judgment. Courage without judgment is pointless and may be dangerous. What makes a person judge wisely? It is not intelligence, as such. Clever people with enormously high IQs often show scarifyingly bad judgment. Nor is it education. When I need advice, I rarely turn to someone with first-class honors from a top university. I turn to someone who has knocked about the world and cheerfully survived “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” One man to whom I turned for his judgment was Ronald Reagan. Though not a scholar by any gauge, he almost invariably judged correctly on the few big issues that really matter.

Being able to judge well is often linked to an ability to mix with and learn from other people–not so much from experts but from common people, those who lack the arrogance of power or the desire to show off their intelligence but who nevertheless think deeply about life’s trials. A person of judgment develops the habit of asking questions of such wise people and listening to their replies.

A sense of priority. In running a country or a vast business, one is faced with countless problems, huge and insignificant, and has to make decisions about all of them. Clever leaders (I’m thinking of Jacques Chirac) often have a habit of pouncing on minor issues and pushing them at all costs, even to the detriment of their real interests. Sorting out the truly big from the small takes an innate horse sense that’s not given to most human beings. It has little to do with intelligence, but it is nearly always the hallmark of a great leader.

The disposal and concentration of effort. Leaders must allocate their time and energy. As a schoolboy right after World War II, I had the good fortune to get a minute of Winston Churchill’s time.”Mr. Churchill, sir,” I asked, “to what do you attribute your success in life?” He replied instantly,”Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.” Of course, Churchill was making a joke, but he was also making a serious point. Whenever possible he did all his letter writing and telephoning in bed, before getting up. Then he’d come bounding out, fresh and eager, ready for the real action of the day.

Humor. This is a key element of leadership, and I can think of few successful leaders totally devoid of a sense of humor. Even Helmuth von Moltke, the austere German strategist, laughed twice–once when told a certain French fortress was impregnable, and once when his mother-in-law died. Stalin himself had humor, though chiefly of a gallows bent. Margaret Thatcher was said by her enemies to have no sense of humor, but I often made her laugh. Once or twice I heard her tell jokes with great success, as, for example, when she delivered her feminist maxim at a dinner attended by 600 men: “The cocks may crow, but it’s the hen that lays the egg.”

This column struck a chord with me in 2005 when I originally read it because I was working closely with leaders that lacked all these marks and it was apparent.  But, what really stood out, they were very high IQ, well educated, good pedigree.  What was missing is that they hadn’t “knocked about the world.”

It is maddening as an associate, shareholder and citizen when leaders in business and politics are promoted based on their education and perceived intellect, rather than their results.

Results are not fool proof promotion measures either.  Some people get lucky with good results and fail at the next level.  But, results work far better than any other promotion tool.

I like real world examples.

Look in fields where results matter.  Rarely do well heeled duds work their way up through the ranks of organized crime.  Same goes with football coaches.  Can you imagine the snickers if a head football coach was hired because he had a degree in coaching from an well respected, top tier institution?  Nobody would buy that as a valid predictor of their coaching performance.  Nobody.  What about a military general?  While many do have degrees from well heeled military institutions, they are also all battle tested.  They win, they get promoted.

And, yet, many consider top tier college degrees acceptable qualifications for many other vastly more important jobs like President of the United States or large publicly traded companies.  If they’re that good they should be able to provide meaningful results of leaders of smaller organizations before taking on the big jobs.


2 thoughts on “Five Marks of Great Leader

  1. Pingback: The Problem With Intelligent Folks « Our Dinner Table

  2. Pingback: The college of life | Our Dinner Table


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