Top of Their Game
Most experts agree that leaders must have certain qualities to be successful. Perspective, integrity, vision, persuasion, and temperament are just a few.
by Delia Cabe
Yogi Berra, infamous for his ungraceful locutions, was appointed manager
of the New York Yankees. Asked whether he felt qualified to do the job,
he said, You observe a lot by watching. Odd syntax aside,
public leaders probably know what he means. Many eminent public leaders
have said that they learned by observing and studying the great ones.
The same goes for leadership scholars, who scour the lives of the good
and the bad around the world in an attempt to delineate the qualifications
necessary for leadership and to understand how leaders come to be. Systematic
scientific study of leadership, mostly in the United States, began in
the 1930s, and if nearly a century of leadership studies has revealed
anything about being a leader, its their degree of complexity.
have delved into leaders seemingly impenetrable paradoxes, theatrical
conflicts, disturbingly contradictory private and public selves, and the
messy co-existence of their strengths and weaknesses. They have found
out plenty by studying the way Lincoln handled the Civil War, Truman made
the decision to drop the atomic bomb, Churchill shored up Britain, Gandhi
overthrew colonialism, and Martin Luther King overcame segregation. They
have analyzed the downfalls of Gingrich, Nixon, and Thatcher. Leadership
is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth,
observes political scientist James MacGregor Burns PhD 1947 in his book
Leadership. Burns has written several seminal books about political
leadership, including his two-volume work, The American Experiment.
Some scholars consider the characteristics of all leaders including
Hitler, Pinochet, Marcos, and Mussolini without making a value
judgment of their actions. The observations and studies by scholars have
led to many, many theories, thousands of journal articles and books, and
numerous courses and conferences. From this body of work, leadership experts
have come up with must-have qualities that may enhance a leaders
chances of success although much is still up for questions and
debate. Their findings? Leaders and would-be leaders have to do more than
observe a lot, if they hope to be effective.
starts from within, writes David
Gergen, professor of public service at the Kennedy School, in his
recently published book, Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership,
Nixon to Clinton. Gergen and Lecturer in Public Policy Ronald
Heifetz MPA 1983 are co-directors of the Center for Public Leadership,
which the Kennedy School opened this fall. Barbara Kellerman is the executive
director. The goal of the center is to become a preeminent center for
research, education, and training in leadership.
The self-confidence of these rare leaders is derived from and blended with their faith in humanity, for they know no one can be honorable unless he honors mankind. Eric Hoffer, in The True Believer, referring to Lincoln,Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Churchill, Gandhi, and Nehru.
come from within are temperament, intellect, and integrity, to name a
few. Youve either got them, or you dont. Of those, Gergen
believes the latter is the most vital trait a leader should possess. Harry
S. Truman, for example, was well known for his sense of integrity, which
he had acquired as a boy growing up in rural Missouri. Since childhood
at my mothers knees, I have believed in honor, ethics, and right
living as its own reward, he wrote. These beliefs directed his every
thought, behavior, and actions in his personal and public life. While
a judge in Missouri, serving under a crooked political machine headed
by the brother of a friend he made during the war, Truman refused to award
contracts for lucrative road construction projects to contractors eager
to bribe him in exchange for the job. Judge Truman was offered money frequently,
but he turned down those gifts as well. He was not tempted
even though he and his family were in dire financial straits. Seeing that
Truman resolutely wanted no part in corrupt practices, the head of the
political machine never again asked him to do something dishonest. During
his tenure as a U.S. senator, Truman avoided even the appearance of being
bought by special interests. Trumans convictions served as his compass
when he assumed the presidency following Franklin Delano Roosevelts
death and made various decisions, including the most difficult, dropping
the atomic bomb. FDR himself saw the presidency as a place of moral
leadership, rather than an administrative office. He realized that
leaders are not merely managers.
leaders lacking in integrity havent made it to public office. We
have seen leaders whose lack of integrity surfaced when their transgressions
became public. Their missteps, in some instances, meant a death sentence
for their careers. Presidents have gotten their positions because they
had other important leadership qualities that were strong enough to provide
a big enough Band-Aid to cover up their deficiencies. Eventually, though,
Band-Aids give way, exposing the holes in their character. In his book,
Gergen reminds us of Heraclituss pronouncement that character is
destiny. Gergen saw the truth of that up close during his years in the
White House under the administrations of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald
Reagan, and Bill Clinton. He observes that the inability of Nixon and
Clinton to achieve self-mastery, as well as to show a deep sense of integrity,
brought about their downfalls. Beyond the White House, the integrity of
other leaders resulted in their undoing. Gary Hart, who pulled out of
the presidential race when his extramarital affair was discovered, and
former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, now on trial for corruption in
federal courts are two examples.
Clinton lied. Hart lied. And they all lost the trust of their constituencies.
No surprise there. Without trust, a leader cannot lead effectively. But
deceit isnt the only sure route to losing the trust of constituents.
Consider what happens to politicians who break promises. The most famous
recent example is George Bush. He told his constituents, Read my
lips. No new taxes, and went back on his promise when he signed
off on the budget he had negotiated with Congress that included increased
taxes. His broken promise factored into his failure to get re-elected
a dream... Martin Luther King, Jr.
A leader is a dealer in hope. Napoleon Bonaparte
of these necessary intrinsic characteristics for good public leadership
does dovetail with the oft-cited notion that leaders are born. Indeed,
but they also must be made. They need preparation. They should learn how
to negotiate, speak, write well, and persuade the public all of
which will enhance their innate strengths. I think these are part
of the skills that a leader should have. Not all leaders are cut from
the same mold, says Gergen in an interview, noting that these skills
are emphasized in courses at the new Center for Public Leadership. Leaders
also need good advisors and staff. As Truman said in his succinct and
direct style, The best executive is the one who has sense enough
to pick good men to do what he wants done, and the self-restraint to keep
from meddling with them while they do it. One should add, provided
a leader knows what he or she wants to do.
thing, to quote the elder George Bush, is not part of leaders
natural makeup. Vision is something that leaders can shape
and even consult others to help them formulate. Leaders will sink fast
if they do not have a vision which should not to be confused with
goals, also de rigueur for leadership or are unable to articulate
it. If either of these were true, a leader could not get others to join
him or her in that vision, much less identify with it. The vision must
reflect and keep intact the core values of an institution. A leader should
instead give fresh life to the one we have, applying it to the context
of the times, leading the nation forward to its greater fulfillment,
notes Gergen in his book. The reason Martin Luther King was so powerful
when he declared, I have a dream, was that he was standing
at the Lincoln Memorial challenging us to carry out the promises of the
Declaration of Independence. In that speech, the civil rights activist
described a promised land, where there was racial equality
and justice for all, and his vision echoed in his subsequent speeches
As many of
us know, one of Kings goals, which are a concrete set of actions
to carry out ones vision, was suffrage for all. In 1965, nonviolent
demonstrators in Selma, Alabama, were protesting the lack of voting rights
when they were beaten by state troopers. An angry King organized a march
of religious leaders from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital, to protest
state troopers attacks on nonviolent demonstrators. During the march,
whites beat two white ministers, one of them fatally, who had joined Kings
protest. A horrified President Lyndon Johnson gave a vehement speech days
later to Congress calling for the immediate passage of a voting rights
bill. In the same year, King was present when Johnson signed the 1965
Voting Rights Act into law.
in point in which a leaders goals fit within an institutions
values: FDR told his constituents that he believed in the essential
future of democracy and promised to end the Depression. During his
first 100 days as president, he made sweeping decisions and pushed legislation
through Congress that included banking reform and an economy bill, which
would allow him to decrease government salaries and veterans pensions
in order to reduce the federal budget by 13 percent. (Nota bene to current
and future leaders: Jumping into the cockpit and taking control of the
plane from the beginning of the journey shows that a leader intends to
act on his or her goals and, thus, gains the confidence of constituents.
If they dont see that a leader is making things happen, their support
will fade quickly.)
actions and results demonstrate his power of persuasion and ability to
work within the system, two more keys to effective leadership. Anyone
who gets anyone to do anything is a leader, Kellerman says. To
me, the word good is tantamount to effective leadership.
Some leaders must keep in mind that they have several constituencies to
work with and get on their side. For U.S. presidents, Congress is one
such group, as are foreign governments, the press, and interest groups.
Other public leaders here and abroad have similar constituencies plus
others, depending upon their roles and the arena in which they work. All
of them, of course, have one main constituency: the citizens.
I am their leader, I really ought to follow them!
that in a free society the leader follows the people even as he leads
them. He must, as someone said, find out where the people are going so
that he may lead them.
isnt shy about letting their leaders know what they think and expect.
These days, e-mail has joined other methods that the public uses to communicate
their outrage or support for them. Snail mail and phone calls, though,
have not gone the way of the Pony Express. In Congress, senators and representatives
get an immediate sense of what their constituents back home feel about
legislation. Government officials in Florida were barraged this fall with
calls demanding or protesting recounts of the votes for president. Pity
the poor staffer who must sort hundreds of messages into pro and con piles!
Meetings with various parties provide opportunities for leaders to hear
directly what their constituents want. They may meet with the public in
town hall meetings. Polls and focus groups also help leaders gauge public
thinking. I truly believe that a leader has to have a deep understanding
of his or her constituencies, says John
Thomas, lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School and faculty
chair of the Singapore program. Thomas helped start a public policy program
at Singapores National University.
into trouble when they try to please all their constituencies. In
campaigns, presidential candidates fall over themselves to promise all
these benefits, Heifetz says. Each constituent has a list
of demands. And all too often, the demands are self-serving without
consideration of the greater good. Good leaders should make decisions
for the public good and tell them that the decision may require them to
endure hardships for a short time. King warned a Memphis crowd, Weve
got difficult days ahead. If their constituents share the vision,
they will accept the adversity and entrust a leader with their fate. It
may sound obvious, but leaders find it hard to resign themselves to the
fact that they cant please everyone at the same time especially
during election years or other times their jobs are at stake and
that they must sometimes dole out spoonfuls of nasty medicine. In essence,
they are asking followers, Take this leap with me. Trust me. I have
faith that this direction is good for all of you.
are to make appropriate decisions, they need to maintain perspective and
take care not to get caught up in the action. Heifetz compares the center
of that action to being on a dance floor. Leaders need to get on
the balcony, according to Heifetz, to get an overview of the action
below. Speaking at a Nieman Foundation seminar, Heifetz explained: Its
really quite lifesaving in organizational life to be able to keep reflecting
in the midst of action, to step back in the midst of action and ask, Whats
going on here? He discusses the concept at length in his book
Leadership Without Easy Answers. He has another work in progress
called Staying Alive.
studied leadership in the public and private sector, and getting on the
balcony is crucial for leaders in both worlds. In fact, leaders in the
private sector are crossing over to the public sector, and vice versa.
The most recent example that comes to mind is the newly elected president
of Mexico, Vicente Fox Quesada, who was an executive in the Coca-Cola
Corporation for years. His election was the first democratic transition
in 71 years. He won on a platform of education and political reforms and
pledged to modernize Mexicos economy.
At the Kennedy
School, students recognized that this movement between both sectors is
a trend and that training for public leadership isnt important for
Kennedy School students only. Their thinking led to the creation last
year of the Consortium on Global Leadership, an interdisciplinary student
organization at Harvard, open to students in all the professional schools.
The significance of this organization is that Kennedy School students
have a natural expectation to become leaders, says Jian Ham MPP
2001 and president and co-founder of the Kennedy School chapter of the
consortium. But, increasingly, others law students, business
school students are interested in becoming public sector leaders.
These students want to be prepared not only for leadership in both sectors,
but in international ones as well. They hope that their exposure to one
anothers perspectives will allow them to step up to the plate in
One of them may also become qualified to fill Yogi Berras shoes
and lead the New York Yankees to another World Series win. Hopefully,
that person will have learned to speak eloquently, free of Berras
malapropisms, during his or her leadership classes at the Kennedy School.
Delia Cabe is a writer/editor for the Radcliffe Quarterly. She writes mostly on medicine and science.