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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

Dare You to Define Leadership!

By James Gelatt

We were about four weeks in the course on Leadership. The class was comprised almost entirely of engineers from NASA Goddard. Left brain: facts, closure, details. I tend to be the opposite: intuition, imagination, big picture.

Just for fun (my fun), I said to the class: “We are already a third of the way into the course, and we don’t have a good definition of leadership. I’m starting to believe we may finish the course and not have a good definition.” 

Which got me thinking: For all of our talk about it and interest in it, do we really know what it means to be a leader? So I have been doing some digging – seeing what “experts”, both practitioners and authors – had to say. Here is some of what I’ve found:

Wharton School of Business has identified the “25 most influential business leaders of the past 25 years.” From an initial list of over 700 candidates, Wharton came up with their top 25. The list includes everyone from Alan Greenspan to Ted Turner, Sam Walton to Mary Kay (of Mary Kay Cosmetics). Herewith, some of the 25, with brief descriptions of why they are viewed as leaders.

Topping the list was Andy Grove of Intel. He was selected for a unique combination of unconventional thinking (take that, left brainers) and integrity. He was followed by:

Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines, about whom it was noted: “Most companies achieve a culture by accident … At Southwest it was more purposeful … He played the role of chief morale officer extraordinarily well.” If you have flown Southwest, you have witnessed the culture, the high morale, the passion about what the employees are doing.

Charles Schwab. A minor player in the trading of stocks, Schwab revolutionized how Wall Street operated by going paperless. Despite enormous opposition from the big players, Schwab was able to make his company a competitor.

Muhammad Yunus, founder of a bank in Bangladesh whose focus is on lending to the poor. Yunus tells his staff to steer clear of someone who comes in asking for a loan – that person is not poor. “The person you are looking for will never come to you. When you find her, she will say, ‘Oh, I don’t need the money.’ When you hear that, you have found your person.” In other words, support those who not only have the talent but the passion.

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Richard Branson: The founder of the Virgin brand is mildly dyslexic and a high school dropout. His path to leadership can be summed up in how he defines “student”: “I didn’t see student just as an end in itself … I saw it as a beginning.” Not as a noun but an adjective – embracing certain values.

So where are we in our definition of leadership so far? Leadership is about being unconventional, having integrity, cultivating a winning culture, taking risks, being inventive, serving others, rethinking almost everything.

Lincoln on Leadership, by Donald Phillips, offers what its author calls “Principles”, distilled from Lincoln’s writing and deeds. Here are just a handful of those principles and they echo what we have heard from the Wharton study:

  • Get out of the office and circulate among the troops; make yourself accessible to the people.
  • Persuade rather than coerce. 
  • Set expectations but offer assistance and support, and encourage initiative.
  • Honesty and integrity are the best policies.
  • Instill values so your employees “own” them.
  • Be consistent, yet flexible; charismatic, yet unassuming; trusting and compassionate yet demanding and tough.
  • Be a risk taker yet patient and calculating.
  • Lead by being led. Listen to others and be guided by them.
  • Give credit when credit is due; when things go wrong, take responsibility
  • Encourage innovation.
  • Be an instrument of change, and a catalyst for change.

If we bring together some of the wisdom from Wharton’s list of the top 25 leaders with Lincoln’s own philosophy, we get a broader picture of what it means to be a leader. It is about leading, to be sure; but it is also about listening, about fairness and compassion, about using influence rather than power.

Graham Alexander (2005) has worked with numerous CEOs as an executive coach. Out of that experience come these “core coaching beliefs”:

  • Most people are trying to do their best most of the time. But almost everyone has greater potential than they are using.
  • Most organizations do very little to acknowledge, reward, congratulate staff and celebrate successes.
  • Most managers feel the need to control and are reluctant to delegate. “We value our people” is a lie in most organizations.
  • People need meaning in their lives.
  • A huge amount of time and effort is expended on things of little importance.

Perhaps leadership is such a difficult concept in part because it is paradoxical. A study undertaken by the Center for Creative Leadership found that leaders were at once universally negative, universally positive, and culturally contingent.

On the negative side, they were often loners, asocial, irritable, dictatorial, ruthless, non-cooperative, and egocentric. But on the positive, they were also trustworthy, honest, encouraging, positive, dynamic, motivating, dependable, intelligent, decisive, communicative, informed, team builders, win-win problem solvers, planners, and just.

How can this be? How can one person possess such polar characteristics? In the words of Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large – I contain multitudes.”

Most of us contain multitudes. Most of us have a dark side that we’d rather not be seen. Perhaps leadership – or better, the leadership to which we aspire – is about acknowledging that dark side but being determined not to be consumed by it.

Among the questions that Alexander asks CEOs whom he is coaching is: “What’s life all about for you?” “What are you hiding?” When the CEOs open up, their answers have to do with having concerns about balancing work and non-work, lacking people skills, feeling they are not in control, not knowing where to go next, wondering: “Is it worth it?”

So if even CEOs share the fears of us average schleps, what makes them leaders? Here is what the Wharton study concluded:

“If there is one trait that each of these leaders share, it is tenacity … These leaders have a long-term vision. They have been willing to ride out the lows with the highs. This willingness to slog it out and stay in the game for the long haul has been reflected in the success of their enterprises and in the endurance of their own influence as leaders.”

We did finally arrive at a meaningful definition of leadership in that class at NASA Goddard. Or more accurately, I think each of the students came to his or her own definition. One of the key themes of the course was that leadership is not inherited; it can be acquired.

And at the end of the course, I asked each of the students to lay out his or her own leadership development goals – starting with the kind of question that Alexander asked his CEOs: What is life all about for you?

I invite you to do the same.

James Gelatt is the author of Managing Nonprofits in the 21st Century and general editor of Aspen's Fund Raising Series for the 21st Century. He is the president of Prentice Associates, a management consulting company specializing in associations and other national nonprofits, and a past-president of the Greater Washington, D.C. chapter of the National Society of Association Executives. You can reach him by email at jgelatt@umuc.edu


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