What creates a great leader? Or even a not so great leader?
In our current political quagmire, leadership is needed—desperately. We look back to men like General Patton or President Lincoln, or even American Revolutionary War General and Louisiana Governor Bernardo de Gálvez. What did these men have in common? What made them great leaders?
During Texas Independence Day celebration here in Huntsville on March 2nd, my good friend Denton Florian gave an inspiring and fascinating presentation on Sam Houston. As a man, Sam Houston was, without doubt, a great leader. He had all the attributes necessary to become a legislator and governor in Tennessee, a general and president of Texas (twice), a senator from Texas to the U.S. government, and finally a governor again, but this time of Texas.
Denton maintained that Houston had ETHICS. Not just honesty and integrity but ethics- an inflexible and unchanging awareness of what was right. The problem, of course, is that what one person considers ethical or morally right during one time period may come to be seen as unethical in another time period. Houston owned slaves. He led a military revolt against Mexico’s legally constituted government. He abandoned the governorship in Tennessee when he had to give up his first wife. Still, can we esteem Sam Houston as a great leader? Absolutely.
Nobody, thank goodness, is going to be ripping Houston’s name off of schools or removing his statues because he owned slaves. The current attempt to impose our modern morality on the past and denigrating the work of past leaders because they owned slaves is as ludicrous as it would be for us to go back to hanging people in public, a moral and popular activity not so long ago.
By the way, Joshua Houston, Sam Houston’s slave, was his close assistant and confidant. While still a slave, Joshua learned to read and write, gained an education, and once freed, was elected to public office in Huntsville, TX. He went on to become a political leader of the Black community and became a delegate to the 1884 Republican national convention. He also made sure all of his eight children were well educated and even more successful than he was. He also helped Houston’s wife, Margaret Lea, after Houston’s death during the Civil War.
But back to leadership. Rank and title does not a leader make. Not all generals are good leaders. And it is not personality. Leaders can be domineering or charismatic, kind or even cruel. They may have personal strengths or even personal shortcomings. And leadership is not management. One can manage a business or a unit and not be a good leader.
Among the leadership qualities that are agreed on by most people, we could include: honest communication, trust in one’s subordinates, ability to delegate, success at identifying strengths in others, talent for empowering those led, and the successful translation of a vision into a reality. Probably most important is confidence in oneself, commitment to a goal, willingness to work toward an outcome, and the courage to keep going, regardless of obstacles. Perhaps we could say that great leadership is the ability to inspire the greatest number of people to do the greatest amount of good for the greatest part of society. Not all leaders do that.
What all leaders do have in common, however, whether good or bad, is the ability to inspire people and move them toward one goal or outcome. That is a frightening thought. Hitler was able to inspire people. The German people elected him to the highest position in government. Mussolini, too, was an inspiration to his followers. He, too, was elected. Donald Trump also inspires his people to a common goal. His own election.
Whether that inspiration is for the good of the whole society is another question entirely.
(And you are too kind to mention my March 2nd address.)
I think rather than looking down our nose at the past and judging previous generations with our 21st century morality we should be asking ourselves what it is that we are doing today that people 150 years from now will look back and condemn us for. That is a much more useful, but uncomfortable question.
Jim Collins has written well researched books on effective leadership in business and surprisingly says the really effective leaders are not necessarily the flamboyant, bombastic types. Not even most of the time. And the Type A, dynamic style can even be detrimental to long term success. Leaders should focus on building a healthy organization. For example, the founders of the United States in 1787 were concerned with building an enduring government that would go the distance, not setting up something for a particular iconic leader.
Collins looked at fantastically performing companies like 3M and asked, “Who is their iconic leader? I don’t know, do you? 3M has been a widely admired –almost revered– company for decades, yet few people can name its current chief executive, or his predecessor, or even his predecessor and so on.”
For all of the companies with big, charismatic leaders there are just as many counterpart examples. William McNight (3M), Matsura Ibuka (Sony), Bill Hewlett (HP), Bill Allen (Boeing), and George Merck (Merck) were all thoughtful, restrained, low key people who built fantastically performing companies. His point was not a slam on big, iconic leaders, but only a statement that that style is not necessary. Good leaders build strong organizations that are not dependent on THEM. “They are clock builders” Collins says, “not time keepers.”
Unfortunately, in our modern, media driven politics I don’t know if a Lincoln or a Jefferson could get elected. Today you have to have a certain media presence, like a JFK, a Reagan, or a Bill Clinton. But that doesn’t mean that person will necessarily be good for the country.
As always, you are an inspiration! I’m going to find Jim Collins’ book.
Collins’ (Stanford) first blockbuster was called “Built to Last.” Incredible book comparing really good companies with great companies. (Columbia Pictures vs. Disney; McDonald Douglas vs Boeing; Merck vs Pfizer, etc) Why do some outperform others in such a dominant way while operating in the same environment?
His next book which was equally compelling was the bestseller “Good To Great” which explored the question, “If a company is only good, can it become great, and if so what would that take?”
Both great books that are very well researched.
Without a doubt , the best synopsis and most timely definition of “Leadership” that I have ever read . It should be mandatory reading for every candidate for public office as well as all elected officials. I am blessed to know the author !
Thank you Bill. Wish some of the “leaders” could learn from History!