Ph.D. C. Psych.
Love them or hate them, you can’t
live without them. They can improve your life and brighten your
future, or ruin your life and destroy your future with equal facility.
They are the ubiquitous “bosses” and leaders in your
Even thoughThomas Carlyle’s great
men theory of history is no longer in vogue, one does not need to
be a historian to realize that leaders at the top can make all the
difference in the world for good or for evil.
Just ask yourself a simple question: What
kind of world would we be living in had Al Gore been elected President
of the United States instead of George Bush? Would the world be
safer with Gore in the White House?
You may apply this mini “thought
experiment” to your own country, organization, school or church.
You might be shocked to discover how a leader’s strengths
and weaknesses, personal traits and character flaws can directly
impact your life.
Given the serious consequences of leadership,
we need to be very serious about whom we vote into office. Beware
of any kind of popularity test, because popularity often camouflages
a lack of competence and integrity. Don’t fall for empty promises
and charming smiles. To get to the heart of assessing leadership,
we need to ask a tough question: What are the defining characteristics
of great leaders?
Who are the greatest American presidents?
Looking at the current field of American
presidential candidates from both parties, can we tell which one
of them will make a great leader? One way to answer this question
is to look back to history. Who are the greatest American presidents
in the past? What makes them stand head and shoulders above the
Several names consistently appear among
the10 greatest Presidents according to various rankings. George
Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt typically
ranked at the top of these lists. Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt.
Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Jackson, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower,
James K. Polk, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan have often been
ranked in the "top 10".
Not all of them were charismatic leaders,
but they were all able to earn the trust of the people because of
their integrity and character. The dark forces, which might have
destroyed lesser mortals, actually had the opposite effect of enhancing
their status and magnifying their exceptional qualities. They have
substantially changed the direction of the nation, uplifted the
spirit of the people and left a positive and enduring legacy.
Without exception, these great presidents
confronted huge foreign and domestic challenges with courage, wisdom,
vision, optimism and a deep sense of responsibility. They not only
overcame enormous difficulties but also achieved phenomenal and
For example, Franklin Roosevelt had to
face the greatest economic depression in modern history and the
combined threats from the Germans and Japanese. He rallied the country
after the disaster of Pearl Harbor and created the "arsenal
of democracy" to defeat the aggressors. During all those years
of titanic struggles, his tired and frail body must have been sustained
by some extraordinary inner strength.
Similarly, Ronald Regan had to simultaneously
tackle a failing economy and a hostile "evil empire”.
Eventually, he was able to revive the economy while limiting government
spending and he won a cold war without bloodshed. He survived a
near fatal assassination attempt with courage and humor. His optimism
and winsome smile never left him even in the darkest hour.
How do we know who will be the next great
president? How can we judge without the benefit of legacy and the
wisdom of history? We can’t, but we can still learn something
from the greats in the past before casting our votes for the next
president or prime minister.
Who are the greatest CEOs?
Great CEOs are also in a league of their
own. They are the rare leaders that money cannot buy. They are capable
of turning a company from the brink of bankruptcy into a great,
enduring organization; they can transform a toxic corporate culture
into something inviting and uplifting. Again, we can learn precious
lessons from these exceptional leaders.
According to Jeffrey A. Krames (2003) the seven
greatest contemporary CEOs are: Michael Dell (Dell Computers), Jack
Welch (GE), Lou Gerstner (IBM), Andy Grove (Intel), Bill Gates (Microsoft),
Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines) and Sam Walton (Wal-Mart). All
seven are household names. They all have achieved spectacular successes
that benefit consumers. Each has a unique vision and an innovative
business strategy, but they all have the courage to embrace change,
the passion to pursue their dream and the competence to carry it
Jim Collins (2005), author of Good to Great
and co-author of Built to Last, has identified the10 greatest CEOs
of all times. Four criteria were used to winnow a pool of more than
400 successful CEOs: legacy (enduring success), impact (great innovations),
resilience (overcoming major crises), and performance (outstanding
cumulative stock returns). Gates, Grove, Welch, and Gerstner were
excluded because they have not been out of office for at least ten
years, therefore, they cannot be evaluated in terms of legacy.
What a selection of diverse individuals! Some
of them were unlikely CEO materials. Katharine Graham stepped into
the position of CEO of the Washington Post after her husband’s
suicide and rose to the occasion with extraordinary courage and
wisdom. William McKnight, creator of 3M, was a bookish accountant
who turned innovation into a system of success. Darwin Smith was
told "You'll never be a leader" by the Army's officer-training
school. Yet, he turned Kimberly-Clark into the world's No.1 paper-based
consumer-products company by selling off all the giant paper mills
and refocusing on a sideline product Kleenex. Charles Coffin, the
first President of General Electric, came from the shoe business
without any engineering training; yet he created the first research
laboratory and a system of creating a succession of brilliant scientists
and great executives.
Some CEOs achieved greatness because of their
sense of social responsibility. David Packard made social responsibility
of sharing wealth a cornerstone of Hewlett-Packard’s corporate
culture. David Maxwell turned Fannie Mai from bankruptcy into a
great company; his greatest genius, according to Collins, “was
to frame the rebuilding around a mission: strengthening America's
social fabric by democratizing home ownership.” James Burke
courageously adhered to the credo of Johnson & Johnson -- product
safety was more important than financial concerns. George Merck
put social responsibility above profit; he declared in 1952 that:
“Medicine is for people, not for profits.”
Others became great CEOs because of their unique
and timely vision. Sam Walton refused to let his charisma get in
the way of his mission: to make better things ever more affordable
to people of lesser means. Bill Allen built Boeing into a commercial
success because he thought in bigger time frames and larger purposes
than his critics. One important lesson Allen learned: “Don't
talk too much. Let others talk."
What made these ten CEOs so great? They loom larger than life, precisely
because they gave themselves and their talents totally to serving
a larger vision than personal success. They all had different personal
traits and talents, “Yet if one thing defines these ten giants,
it was their deep sense of connectedness to the organizations they
ran”, Collin wrote. They understood the paradox of leadership:
“Much depended on them, but it was never about them.”
Twelve defining characteristics of great
What set apart great leaders from those who
are merely good? The above case and the larger leadership literature
have pointed to the following twelve defining characteristics. No
one leader may possess all these characteristics, but all great
leaders must demonstrate at least some of the following strengths
1. Great capacity
for productive work -- They seem to possess boundless energy
and thrive under stress. They are able to work indefatigably for
years on end in order to accomplish an important project. Their
stamina and tenacity give them a decided advantage. They manage
to work with great enthusiasm even when they cannot get into a state
of “flow”. Their consistent productivity is based on
their deeply ingrained habits of commitment and discipline.
2. Great vision
for the right direction -- They can see things clearer and
farther than others. They have insight into just what is needed
and the foresight to see what will succeed in the long run. They
can feel the pulse of the world which they inhabit and anticipate
the world which is not yet born. Time and time again, they prove
that they have the right answer, even when conventional wisdom and
tradition dictate otherwise. Their vision is neither a grand illusion,
nor abstract ideal. Rather, it is a living document that inspires,
unites and energizes others.
3. Great intellect
and knowledge -- They are intelligent, knowledgeable and
competent not only in their specialty, but also in the general area
of humanities, social sciences and business administration. They
have a good grasp of complex issues and the ability to get to the
crux of the matter. They have the genius of holding two opposing
views and the wisdom to navigate cross-currents.
4. Great people
skills -- They work well with all kinds of people from different
cultures, because they have a deep understanding of human nature
and basic human needs that transcend cultures. They see both the
bright and dark side of people, without losing faith in the human
potential for positive change. They don’t judge others on
the basis of beliefs, values or other cultural characteristics,
because they respect the basic human dignity of all people. Understanding
and flexibility characterize their leadership style. They know how
to resolve conflicts and foster harmony. They know that different
folks need different strokes, and they apply different management
skills to handle different situations.
5. Great team-builders
-- They do not surround themselves with people who are subservient
and loyal only to them, but select competent and creative people
who are faithful to the same vision and mission. They welcome diverse
opinions and value people who are smarter than they are in various
areas of expertise. They know how to put together and manage an
A-team to insure organizational success.
6. Great motivators
– They create a supportive and meaningful work environment
and make people feel that they matter to the organization. They
generate intrinsic motivation by involving people in the excitement
of doing something significant and purposeful. They capitalize on
people’s strengths and know how to unleash these inner energies.
They see the potential in every person and want to bring out the
best in them. They empower workers to develop their potential to
become great workers and leaders. They set challenging but realistic
goals. By setting an example of excellence in everything they do,
they make it the standard for all aspects of their operations.
7. Great heart
–Their heart is big enough to embrace the entire organization
and the whole world. They are neither partisan nor petty. They reach
out to those who do not agree with them. They don't mind to be proven
wrong or outshined by others; their main concern is the common good.
They don’t hold grudges; they are always ready to forgive
and apologize. Their capacity for compassion is equal to their understanding.
8. Great communicators
-- They can articulate a vision and tell compelling stories to rally
people around a common goal. They know how to inform as well as
inspire. Above all, they are good listeners. They understand people’s
needs and feelings by talking to them on a personal level. Their
ability to resonate with others is based not so much on communication
skills as on their deeply felt sense of connectedness with the organization
9. Great optimists
-- They stay optimistic even when circumstances are bleak. Their
optimism stems from personal faith more than anything else –
faith that good will prevail over evil and persistence will eventual
lead to success. They know how to inspire hope through difficult
times, while battling their own inner doubts. Their proven capacity
to endure and overcome inspires others to be optimistic about the
10. Great courage
– They have the courage to confront their worst fears and
risk everything in order to remain true to their own convictions
and other people’s trust. Courage is not the absence of fear,
but the ability to persist and act in the presence of fear. They
know how to live with the continued tension between despair and
hope, doubts and confidence, fear and courage. They grow stronger
as a result of this constant opposition.
11. Great self-knowledge
– They know who they are and what they stand for. They know
that their strengths contain the seeds of destruction (e.g., over-confidence).
They also accept their own weaknesses and limitations as the essential
conditions of being human. They are willing to accept negative feedback
in order to improve themselves. They would not let their ego get
in the way of doing what is good for the organization. Feeling comfortable
in their own skins reduces their defensiveness. Their humility comes
from their emotional maturity and self-knowledge.
12. Great character
– Above all, they possess integrity and authenticity. They
have the moral courage to stand up for their beliefs and do what
is right, no matter how much it will cost them. To them, integrity
is more important than success. Their leadership is principle-centered
and purpose-driven, regardless of the pressure to make expedient.
They are transparent and genuine; they say what they mean and they
walk the talk. They accept responsibility for their choices and
would not blame others for their own mistakes. They do not steal
credits from others. One of their greatest assets is their “reputational
capital”. Others can always bank on their trustworthiness,
because they serve as symbols of morality and ethics.
This list of exceptional qualities suggests that great leaders are
made rather than born. A hunger for learning, good work ethics,
character strengths and people skills can all be cultivated. Natural
born abilities play an important role, but most of the elements
of greatness are acquired, often through trials and tribulations.
To be a great leader one needs first to become
a positive person of sterling qualities. When it comes to leadership,
character counts more than competence, and what you are matters
more than what you do. A great leader is not just some one with
great abilities, but someone who has a positive impact on a great
number of people. In the final analysis, it is not your personal
resume but your legacy that determines your greatness.
Now, apply these twelve criteria to the current
presidential candidates -- with ten as the perfect score for each
leadership characteristic and zero as the lowest score. Who will
come out best on these leadership measures? Hillary Clinton or Barack
Obama? Rudy Giuliani or John McCain?
More importantly, measure your own leadership
as a parent, a teacher or a leader in your church or organization.
What is your strongest quality? What is your weakest link? What
areas offer the best hope for improvement?
It is never easy to be a leader, but someone
has to do the leading in most situations. This world will become
a better place, when more people aspire to acquire the characteristics
of great leaders.
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