Thursday, May 19, 2011

Final Thoughts

What makes a leader effective? To answer this question I have looked across three continents and twenty-five hundred years of written history. I have looked at good men and bad men, Presidents and peasants, only to discover that one single picture of leadership does not exist. If a person asked Niccolo Machiavelli and Paul Rusesabagina the question that opens this post, the two men would give very different answers. Despite the varied portrays of leadership that I have seen, some commonalities exist. If I can observe what some of the foremost leaders in our history have in common, maybe I can figure out a way to translate those principles in a way that improves my own leadership.

The importance of communication of leaders appears over and over again throughout the books I have read. Whether it is Oskar Schindler saving lives, Abraham Lincoln changing the values of our nation, or Martin Luther King, Jr. commanding his followers from prison, communication is vital. Eloquence in oration allows the leader to convince those around him to do what he wants them to do. And that is a leader's primary objective: make the goals of others line up with his goals. People have all kinds of different opinions about what they want to happen and what should happen. A leader's job is to sift through the mess of choices, make the right one, and convince others to follow him.

Another important quality for a leader is clear decision making in the presence of emotion. Often times, situations can illicit a response that cloud a leader's ability to act rationally. A true leader can block out emotional distractions and concentrate on selecting the proper course of action. Both John F. Kennedy and Paul Rusesabagina give us examples of how to ignore anger and still lead effectively. Many people would fail dramatically in the same situation. It takes a certain type of personality to be able to filter emotion out of a decision-making process. Nobody would ever say that leaders do not or should not feel emotion. Although when it comes time to decide the fate of those around him, a leader must not let personal feelings factor into the equation.

Finally, leaders need to care genuinely about their followers, or else feign genuine care very well. When people feel that their leader has their best interests at heart, they are more likely to follow his instructions and agree without questioning. As odd as the pairing is, Joe Maddon and Antigone demonstrate beautifully what it means to show genuine care for those around you. The leader does not always have to put himself first, as Machiavelli would have it. When a leader acts selflessly, he earns the respect and trust of those around him because it shows that he wants the best for them. As the adage goes: "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." Leaders can lead much more effectively when his followers believe that he is on their side.

The main goal of a leader is to get those around them to do what he wants them to do, whether for selfish or selfless reasons. Communication, clear-headedness, and dedication are three important means to this end. Despite my efforts, the Platonic form of leadership has escaped me. However, I do think that I have identified three qualities that help greatly in making a leader effective. I hope that this journey to discover what it means to be a leader will assist me in the future. I fear that the ease of writing about leadership after reading some of the great leaders of our time will not match the difficulty of putting these tenets into practice in real life. Now that I have discovered some of the necessary attributes of a good leader, the challenge is to implement them in a way that improves my ability to lead in any situation in which I find myself.


  1. I agree that the ease of writing about leadership might give a false sense of the difficulty of doing. I suggest that you re-read "Iron" in Primo Levi's "The Periodic Table"--at least the last page. Sandro was a man of deeds--actions and experience--not of talk or language or writing. Primo, his friend, is the language guy, the writer. Sandro DID, boldly. Primo wrote. But when Sandro is gone--he who was indifferent to language as memorial and monument--there was nothing left of him, except (as Primo says) for "words, precisely." Clearly, it's not enough merely to be the one to describe what others do (although I'm a huge fan of Primo's realization that that's his role--that he's not good at deeds). But it's not enough either to limit oneself to the sphere of experience and action. Reading and writing about leadership creates a balance of thought and action. Leadership is an abstraction - a theory. Applying such a theory is a matter of picking and choosing the occasions when it seems urgently relevant. In the area of leadership in particular, theory is useless without application. Then again, leadership cannot happen intuitively or spontaneously beyond the first instance (think Schindler, who had NO theory of leadership and refused, mostly, to think about it). If you want to be the person who strings the instances together, and behaves consistently and helpfully, ponder that this exercise (reading and writing) helps create that unifying structure. It's all about (to repeat) creating a balance of thought and action.