More years ago than i care to think about, i first read the book Presidential Power by Richard E. Neustadt, which used historical examples to explain how U.S. presidents led—or failed to lead—during their terms of office.
The text was first published in 1960 and became a staple in political science classes for its insight into the executive branch of American government. But the book still has resonance and relevance today, not only for understanding government, but for understanding the principals of leadership in any context.
The core of Neustadt's argument was that for all the legislative authority granted a president, the executive was fundamentally weak, and that presidential power derived from his ability to persuade those around him that his interests were their interests. That's not simply charismatic leadership —though that may play a part—but an astute and pragmatic ability to assess and mold the prevailing opinion in ways that align public policy with the president's own interests. History has shown that's no easy thing to do. But it's a crucial part of leadership.
Business leadership is much the same. It is not simply a matter of giving orders and awaiting the results. I was reminded of that while listening to some speakers at the Logistics and Supply Chain Forum in New York. D. Michael Abrashoff, former commander of the Navy vessel USS Benfold and author of a book on leadership, It's Your Ship, discussed how his success derived from what he called "grassroots leadership," something like the "management by walking around" that drove the early development of Hewlett-Packard. Lt. Col. Melinda Woodhurst, an Army officer who specializes in logistics operations, emphasized the importance of character—that leaders set the example—and knowing her soldiers. That calls to mind the "buck stops here" attitude Harry Truman brought to the presidency. Even in the military, it's clear that leadership is more than merely giving orders.
What is it that sets a commander in chief apart from the rest of us? There's not enough space here to dive into that topic. But even a cursory look at business and political successes and failures shows that true leadership ability is often the difference.