Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Executive Leadership - Whatever That May Mean

We hear stories about leadership all the time. Some of them inspiring (Washington, Lincoln, Truman, Kennedy) and some of them despising (Hitler, Stalin, Ebbers, Lay). There are literally thousands of people and heaven only knows how many companies who for eons have made a very handsome living trying to understand what leadership is and how it is acquired, how to grow it, nurture it, develop it, implant it, copy it, manufacture it, buy it, sell it, define it, and you name it.

Over the last fourteen years , we have asked recruiters to tell us what the key characteristics or criteria are that they are asked to “find” when given a search assignment. We have always ended up with a list of ten to twelve items, but the top three every single year have always been leadership, industry-specific experience, and functional expertise. You look at the list, and the only one that sounds like rocket science is leadership. Given the current tenure of the corner office these days, it sure feels like the search continues.

I am sure that I, like many of us, have thought about this question for a long time. I am also sure like many of us, that I don’t have an answer. I do, however, have an opinion, and like most opinions, it is based more on “feeling” than “fact.” While I don’t know what leadership is, like pornography as they say, I know it when I see it.

That said I also have a theory which may speak to leadership per se or may just address managing, but it goes like this:

When it comes to judging the performance of a manager, they really get paid to do three critical things: Hire, Fire and Evaluate.

At the risk of being overly simplistic, the rest you can learn from books and on-the-job experience. Said differently, leaders are judged by their ability to make judgments which are subjective which means they are always open to interpretation and argument. And who is to say what’s right or wrong, but they have to make the judgment nonetheless and then be able to take the heat from those who disagree. In short, they must take a stand for a belief.

Not easy stuff.

P.S. In case you don't recognize it, the "post office" picture of some of our more well known "leaders" was in BusinessWeek a year or two ago, I just don't remember exactly when, just thought it was cool.


reinkefj said...

***Begin Quote***

Inspiring (Washington, Lincoln, Truman, Kennedy) and some of them despising (Hitler, Stalin, Ebbers, Lay)

***End Quote***

Well, I'll quibble about the exemplars, both positive and negative.

Let's start with the areas of agreement:

Clearly Washington is great positive. Even though he wasn't the greatest general, suffered from depression, lied to Congress (setting a precedent!), but was happy to be President but not King.

On the negative side, Stalin killed enough people to make Hitler look inept. Stalin had the new American Socialists to cheer lead for him hence he's not viewed as the ogre he was. History has a way of eventually getting to the truth.

I'll quibble with rest as "Leaders".

To me, to earn the appellation "Leader", one not only has to "lead", but one has to be "authentic". Note, I'm not saying they have to be "right", but they can't deliberately do "wrong".

Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, like the current President. Truman dropped the bomb. Kennedy pretended to be a Catholic. Hitler was inefficient when compared to Stalin. Ebbers and Lay just were just common thieves.

Some "leaders" that I would revere are (in a rough order of magnitude) Gandhi, MLK, Pope John 23, Mother Theresa, Pope John Paul 2, Margaret Thatcher and Elinore Roosevelt.

I think that Leadership is inspirational. It gets you going. It's motivational. It's smart in being able to divine the correct path that takes the civilization to a better place. We have to be very careful who we designate as a Leader because it gives them tremendous power for good or for evil. I think that "leadership" is as rare as the proverbial hen's teeth. Managers, pretending to be leaders, are a common as rodents.

No wonder everyone's looking for it in so many venues.

reinkefj said...

It must be syncronicity becasue a few hours later I found this.


Book Review: Martin Luther King Jr. on Leadership


Dave Opton said...


Not that you would have the time given all that you are into, but if you haven't already, I would recommend David McCulloch's biography of Truman. Incrediable!

Not suggesting to defend putting Harry on the list here, just recommending because it is such a riviting account.