Debate about what leadership means can rage endlessly, and often does. Some might hold up Attila the Hun (not to be confused with the calypso singer of the same name) as a model. Others, influenced by a book they pretended to have read in college, might promote NiccolÃ² Machiavelli. Little Nicky, as he may have been known, was arguably the father of modern political science but hardly qualifies as a leader. He was a consigliere.
European kings were de facto considered to be leaders, for centuries. Serious scholarship has shown, however, that many were, in fact, not. Simple peasants and powerful lords of church and state alike took the divine appointment of kings and such as an automatic affirmation of their leadership qualities. Most glossed over the reality that the divine appointment was only valid until a more ruthless competing family was able to oust the incumbents.
In modern times, anyone running to be president of the United States has found it necessary to convince the electorate of his—or her—leadership capabilities. The process was certainly simpler when the candidates were hand-picked by corpulent septuagenarians in smoke-filled rooms. Because the candidates are sometimes pretending—hoping—to be leaders, the results have been uneven. James Earl Carter comes to mind as does Herbert Hoover, on one end of the spectrum, with Ronald Reagan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the other.
In business, though, leadership tends to be conferred by the actions of followers. It is surely earned, but is not typically won. That is not to say that a certain amount of jockeying for position among board members does not go on prior to a leadership transition, much as cardinals are reported to do during the process of electing a new pope.
Components of leadership
So, what is it that leaders have that others don't, at least not to the same degree? A mastery of the following five skills: communication, inspiration, delegation, evaluation, and coordination.
Take communication, for instance. Every great leader begins by being a great communicator. But not all communication styles and media are used equally effectively by leaders. Winston Churchill was a brilliant orator and writer, both in and out of political office, before becoming prime minister. Franklin Roosevelt was a master of radio communication at a time when Americans needed reassurance, a sense of direction, and a calm, steady voice. Ronald Reagan used television, writers, and scripts better than any president before or since.
Adolf Hitler, a contemporary of Roosevelt's, led hypnotic mass outdoor rallies to inflame a nation. Staged in Nuremberg, they were simulcast throughout Germany. Cuba's Fidel Castro could captivate large audiences, in person, on television, or on the radio with speeches that ran on for hours.
But the ability to sway masses is not the style for all leaders. Some leaders, in politics and in business, are marvelously effective in small groups, persuasively presenting policies and positions. In another variation, Mohandas K. Gandhi, a hesitant speaker with a thin voice, communicated by example, with fasting and civil disobedience.
Inspiration generally follows effective communication. Similarly, lack of inspiration generally follows ineffective communication. At the outset of the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover, a bright and honest man, set in motion a number of what were later judged to be far-sighted actions and initiatives. But he was not a good communicator and failed to develop any appreciable level of public confidence in his programs.
Inspiration often comes from the unique vision that a leader brings to the organization. The vision gets energized and transmitted to those who follow. There is an expectation of achievement, of success. Similarly, a lack of vision gets communicated as well, and what gets transmitted is a failure to energize. Green Bay's Vince Lombardi said it best, "Once you learn to quit, it becomes a habit . ..."
Jimmy Carter, another bright and honest man, won no hearts and minds with turning down the heat, wearing sweaters indoors, and speaking of "malaise." But his successor, Ronald Reagan, could make people believe in "morning in America."
Delegation is, in the traditional literature, a management must, a key to effective leadership. And that's generally true. But not all leaders are equally adept at all five elements of leadership. Results come—usually—from making someone else responsible for the details of execution, from delegation. But FDR's first vice president, prickly John Nance (Cactus Jack) Garner of Texas, described the job as "not worth a bucket of warm spit." Only, he didn't say "spit." Later FDR neglected to let his last vice president know that the government had been successfully working on a new toy for the military called the atomic bomb. Of course, Roosevelt was notoriously Machiavellian in assigning trusted—and trusting—aides tasks that ran at cross purposes, and in dissembling without hesitation if it suited his private agenda.
Evaluation is the process of developing and delivering feedback. It involves the art and science of deciding if, when, and how to change course when projects and programs are at stake. The even more delicate process of applying evaluation to people encompasses knowing when to make change, when to coach, when to develop, and when to part ways.
Coordination is the management of team activities toward the desired end. It demands ground-level teamwork for success—and the leader should be the best team player in the group. Inevitable management of conflict ("creative tension") comes into play. In the political arena, Abraham Lincoln, as described in Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals, virtually invented the practice and process of coordination of peers and competitors, amidst doubt and conflict.
There are other lists of so-called leadership qualities, but, frankly, they boil down to the ones we've laid out. Anyone who masters these five elements, believes them, and has a vision to promote through them won't have to fight to become a leader. He or she will have to fight off the multitudes of people who want to follow and be part of the winning team.
Why is this important today?
It's always important. But we've been going through tough times, and that affects both the political world and the workaday world. People need to know, at a cosmic level and as matters affect them personally, what's going to happen—and that they'll be OK.
We need many things. First, honest-to-goodness problem solvers who can figure out what to do next (without first breaking into a public flop sweat). Second, a communicator who can frame what needs to be done into a vision that is coherent and understandable to Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch (and this is vital for both the national economy and the future of an individual's department). Third, cheerleaders who will take the time to communicate, lift spirits, and project confidence. Yes, cheerleading is also part of the leadership equation.
We can all play some role in making this happen, and today would be a good day to start.