Leaders must have the ability to make tough decisions. They must have the character to inspire confidence.
Following are some thoughts and values that inform our leadership work at the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies:
The Republic Needs Leaders
When we speak of national security problems, economic problems, political problems, energy problems, environmental problems, and social problems, we are ultimately confronting leadership problems. To grapple effectively and ethically with the plethora of problems we face, we must take the utmost care to educate emerging leaders in social skills, the process within which they work, risk assessment, and a humane understanding of the human condition.
Leaders and Geese
Leaders can learn a little something from observing geese:
– A flock of geese know their community; they know who’s in the flock.
– When the flock takes off and align in their V formation, all the geese are flying in the same direction.
– In a well-coordinated V they are helping each other by creating an updraft, each for the goose behind him. They can fly 70 percent farther if they help each other than if they fly isolated.
– The leader knows he doesn’t have to do it alone. He is happy to share the lead. When he gets tired, he falls behind and lets the goose behind him take the lead.
– The honking comes from the back of the flock to encourage the ones with the most resistance out front.
– When a goose in flight falters and must land, the others land and surround him for protection, and stay with him until he can fly again or dies.
Leadership Traits (from Paul Hillegonds)
It’s important to study the best leaders and discover what traits many of them have in common. That’s what we do at the Hauenstein Center. So we invited Paul Hilligonds to speak to our leadership fellows. Paul has held major leadership positions in all three major sectors — for-profit, non-profit, and public. He shared his rich experience and reflections with leadership fellows on September 26, 2011, in Lansing.
- Leaders know that leadership depends on relationships. Relationships depend on trust, and trust arises out of integrity. Integrity is adherence to core values. So leaders protect their integrity, first and foremost. (For once integrity is lost, it is difficult if not impossible to recover.) It’s the most important thing to know about the individuals we regard as good leaders: They have integrity, which gives rise to trust, which is the foundation of good relationships, which is the basis for collective action.
- Leaders are not insecure but have a healthy self-esteem and are comfortable in their own skin — so healthy that they know when to listen and when to follow. They know when to mentor and when to be mentored.
- Leaders know themselves — especially their weaknesses — so surround themselves with diverse, talented people who can complement their skills and tell them not necessarily what they want to hear, but what they need to hear.
- Leaders have a strong sense of purpose. They know why they are leading. They are not just managing the status quo, but have a vision of where to go.
- Servant leaders are motivated to make an impact. They are results oriented. They also respect that process which gets results. Servant leaders want to achieve results that better a situation, solve a problem, make a community stronger, and bring about the greater good.
- Leaders have the courage and decisiveness to be decision-makers. They often know the outcome they want out of a meeting or process. But they know that everyone else does, too. Diverse people have their own ideas about the way things should be. Leaders understand that they are not just “bosses.” Leadership is about piloting and steering, not dictating or ordering (unless of course there is a safety emergency). In a democracy, the process to reach a decision usually involves flexibility, adaptation, compromise, cooperation. During the process, good leaders work hard to steer diverse people toward a consensus. Instinctive problem solvers, they are determined to find common ground with those with whom they disagree. This means that they are good negotiators who value two-way communication, listen well, and winnow options well. Again, they prefer steering people toward consensus than commanding them like pawns. They steer a great team toward implementing the consensus.
- Leaders are risk-takers. They are not content just to manage the status quo. They will even risk sharing credit and power when it’s the right thing to do.
- To make the tough decisions — the 51-49 decisions — leaders grapple with the age-old quandary of whether to follow their conscience or be guided by the will of the people they represent. In either case, it comes back to relationships: if leaders try to know their constituents, they will better understand and be better understood when the time comes to make a difficult decision.
- Leaders know they did not create their community and its institutions out of whole cloth, but stand on the shoulders of others. They see themselves as stewards of their institution and stewards of their community.
- What if your place or position in an organization is the minority one? In today’s polarized climate, what is the role of a community steward? You are obligated to do more than “just say no.” You are obligated to give a constructive alternative because you recognize a higher calling to the community. To be effective, you have to go back to fundamentals like the first one mentioned — relationships. Get to know the people who oppose you; have dinner together; understand their family heritage and experience and concerns. That human foundation will go far both when it comes time to make a difficult decision, and when you are trying to get an audience for your “voice in the wilderness.”
Death, Happiness, and Leadership
The death of Steve Jobs has brought to light his Socratic side, the conviction that a good life is about preparing for a good death. (See The Apology, Crito, and Phaedo.)
From Socrates to Steve Jobs, the art of living comes down to this: living as though you will soon die. With the urgency to get things right, you will simplify. You will have increasingly peaceful, positive relations with fellow human beings. You will be a better listener and friend. (You will finally succeed in living the Golden Rule.) You will quit trying to control people and situations you cannot. (You will finally succeed in living the Serenity Prayer.) You will not take another’s foul mood so personally. (You will finally be more adept at letting go of perceived injuries.) Since you want to leave a positive legacy, you will challenge yourself to make people feel that their life is better because of their encounters with you. No backbiting, no negativity, no whining, no complaining: just good words about people, about our stories, about the work we do, about the opportunities to grow amid struggle, and about our vision for — and actions consistent with — a better life for all whose lives we are privileged to touch. Ironically, the approach of death can focus us and make us happier.
Considering how death focuses the mind, I want you to undertake a little thought experiment. Try to imagine how this notion of the art of living impinges on the art of leadership. If you were to ask leaders what they’d do if told they had only five months to live, they no doubt would focus on their relationships — with children, spouse, family, and close friends — exactly what Steve Jobs did. Now, if you were to ask leaders what they would do if told they had only five years to live, they would still tend to the primary relationships in their life, but they would also try to contribute something that they would be proud to leave behind — some expression of the best of their gifts. This larger horizon would concentrate their efforts on legacy, on how they’d want to be remembered, and they no doubt would do something great.
Since none of us knows when we’ll die, what’s stopping you from giving the best of your gifts to humankind now? You just may become a happier human being and leader if you live with more urgency to get your relationships and work right.
The Education of Leaders: Social Sciences and Humanities
Education engenders understanding and compassion. We see what happens where education is lacking. In the absence of understanding and compassion, frustrated people resort to extremism, force, violence, terror, and war. ~Dr. Jonathan White
The education of leaders often draws on the social sciences — economics, the law, political science, sociology, etc. The education of leaders should also include deep engagement with the humanities — history, literature, philosophy, etc. The social sciences are useful because they explain and/or predict patterns of behavior in large populations of human beings. The humanities help us remain alive to the unique and unpredictable turn in human events; help us not be surprised by the unexpected ways an individual will choose to think and act; pull us into the minds and experiences of other individuals and cultures. Leaders need to appreciate both the social sciences and the humanities, and welcome thinkers from each perspective to the table. Here’s why:
- Since World War II, the U.S. has been the world’s greatest superpower. Yet in late 1989, not one leader foresaw the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Empire — not one — despite the fact that our nation employed thousands of experts in the social sciences and spent $30 billion annually in universities, government intelligence agencies, think tanks, and exchange programs to observe and understand Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R.
- Since World War II, the U.S. has been the world’s dominant economy. Yet in late 2007, hardly any leaders fully grasped that the global real estate bubble was about to drive the U.S. and other Western nations over a cliff. The Great Recession would wreck havoc on the middle class, but where were the experts who took a leadership role and warned investment bankers and policy makers to forswear toxic mortgages and asset bundling?
- After World War II, our economy and military needed Middle Eastern allies and oil. Yet in late 1979, hardly any American experts trained in the social sciences saw the coming eruption of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Hardly any experts foresaw and told us how radical the reassertion of Islam would change our world for decades to come.
As part of their education, emerging leaders/apprentice leaders should be well exposed to both the statistical mind and the humanistic mind. They should know how to form a team of advisers who come from the social sciences and humanities. They should grapple with case studies in which the statistical mind and humanistic mind complemented and/or clashed with one another. For example, how did these two advisory styles help or hurt JFK as he arrived at a decision during the Cuban missile crisis? [For an appreciation of the humanities in leadership education, see W. R. Connor, “Why Were We Surprised?” American Scholar (2001): 175-84.]
My colleague in the economics department at Grand Valley State University, Prof. Greg Dimkof, is refreshingly humble about the predictive powers of his discipline. He claims that economists do not predict very well because meteorologists cannot predict long-range weather very well. The economy is dependent on a wild card, weather, and weather impacts energy costs, crops, investors, catastrophes, lost productivity, and much else that goes into the GDP calculus.
Human nature is everywhere and always constant. One of the constants is that there will always be followers and leaders. Another is that followers will always respond better to leaders who consistently show strength of character. But leadership traits and styles are sensitive to threshold events in history. Consider the creation of the United States, the first large republic in the modern era. Our nation was established in a world of hostile monarchs. The new republic fundamentally changed the idea and practice of leadership. In most cultures prior to 1776, men and women became leaders through conquest or dynastic succession. The U.S. gave rise to leadership that wasn’t grounded in conquest or dynasties, but in “the consent of the governed” (Locke and Jefferson). One important trait leaders need to connect with the governed is trust. Because it is so necessary to compromise in a constitutional republic, leaders must have integrity. When they enter negotiations and make agreements, there must be no betrayal. Another important trait is empathy. Developing a leader’s capacity to feel empathy for others – to really listen to others and try to understand their experiences and viewpoint – is central to leadership in a democratic polity. This empathy is developed in part through our reflection on our own and others’ suffering, and in part through a liberal education – i.e., through thoughtful engagement with literature, biography, history, psychology, and other “liberating” disciplines.
Trust, according to Gerald R. Ford, is the most important trait an American leader needs to possess. In line with this thought, Ford always showed respect to others. He regarded people who disagreed with him as opponents, not enemies.
The four most important things leaders need (adapted from Rufus Fears): Leaders need (1) a moral compass to maintain integrity in their personal relations, (2) firm political principles to guide their public policies, (3) the possession of emotional intelligence, good interpersonal relations, and communication skills to bring people together in a consensus, and (4) vision or foresight — pronoia in Thucydides – to anticipate danger, guide the priorities when a leader sets the agenda, and answer the question: What should stay the same, and what should change, as we respond to a challenge / better our condition / take ourselves to the Promised Land?
To these four characteristics, an Aristotelian like Alasdair MacIntyre would add (5) the virtue of prudence, which is good judgment wedded to right action. Presidential historian Robert Dallek would add (6) luck since statesmen enjoy enough good luck to win the battles they must. Agreeing with all that has come before, I would add (7) the inner strength, psychological resilience, and courage to fight another day. For elaboration on this last point, see my essay, “Democracy’s Greatest Leaders — Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill.”
Sea Change in Leadership
The rise of the United States brought about a sea change in leadership. Prior to the American founding, there were relatively few leaders in proportion to the population of any given nation. Most of the Old World’s leaders ruled through conquest or dynastic succession. The rise of the U.S. increased the absolute and relative number of leaders in the West as well as changed the rules of the game. “We the People” were no longer subjects of a king, but citizens of a constitutional republic who enjoyed inherent rights, as well as the opportunity to pursue happiness as we wished. Most American leaders were not “to the manor born” but worked their way “from the bottom up.” So prepare to be surprised by the people around you: Today’s followers may well be tomorrow’s leaders.
The frontier played a special role in developing American leadership. It called forth women and men who had to meet innumerable challenges before local, state, or national government could extend its effective reach, even for day-to-day defense. In this challenging new environment, self reliance, the cultivation of freedom under the rule of law, and a culture of democratization took root. These values have had a profound impact on who leads whom, when, and how, in America.
The three great sectors of American public life have reinforced this sea change in leadership. In the political arena, candidates standing for election must learn consensus-building skills, the art of compromise, accommodation, flexibility, and respect for rules of the game. If you lose the debate or the vote, you accept the outcome and live to fight another day. In the marketplace, the providers of goods and services have to be sensitive to people’s needs and wants, offering what is socially needed and desirable — or risk financial failure. In civil society, there are all kinds of opportunities for people to volunteer and take a lead improving the lives of others. All three of these sectors — political, economic, and voluntary — reinforce one another. Each sector requires ethical, effective leaders. The effect has been to dramatically increase the number of leadership opportunities in the U.S., as well as to democratize and decentralize leadership.
In America, the tyrannical type does not do well in the public square — either in the political arena, marketplace, or civil society. Throughout our history, people have had to conceal and channel their libido dominandi. In effect they have to come across as ruling less and leading more. It means that a lot of what a leader has to do is genuinely connect with others. True leaders — the Real Deal — must make a better impression than the host of pretenders out there. They have to win others over in an authentic way. A leader wins others over through good people skills, integrity, hard work, smart presentation, and mastery of the practical arts of leading.
A Democratic Culture of Leadership
The most unlikely people with the most debilitating flaws and in the most unlikely circumstances have risen to leadership positions, so…. So look around with renewed respect for the people you know. The person who is small and unassuming (like Gandhi) might lead a multitude; the person who has a speech impediment (like Moses) may start the greatest liberation movement in human history; the teenage girl (like Joan of Arc), although inhabiting a “man’s world,” might lead an army against a foreign enemy; the person who grows up in isolated log cabins and receives hardly any schooling (like Abraham Lincoln), may with courage and eloquence lead the United States to rediscover its destiny. Look around you and be prepared to follow….
Look also into yourself – and be prepared to lead. You never know when you will be called upon to lead. That’s why we offer leadership education to young people at the Cook Leadership Academy.
Because the U.S. is a large, free nation with great opportunities in the three major sectors – business, government, and non-profit – our nation offers people more opportunities to lead than any other, ever. So: there is no excuse. If you see a problem that needs to be addressed, help a leader or be the leader who wrestles the challenge to the ground.
The Center Must Hold
A good double entendre to describe what we believe: At the Hauenstein Center, we believe that the center must hold. We balance conservation and innovation. (Thanks for this double entendre, Adam Bradway.)
– We do not just focus on political leadership at the Cook Leadership Academy. We are committed to raising up a community of ethical, effective leaders who are familiar with the ecology of all three sectors – business, government, and non-profit. The same leadership skills are needed in each of these sectors.
– Managers are problem solvers; leaders are problem seekers. In the former case, the problem has already appeared, so it’s too late to do anything but manage the suffering it is causing and try to root it out. In the latter case, the problem is pre-empted by a leader in possession of that critically important trait – foresight. (See Herodotus and Thucydides.)
– Think BIG. Be BOLD. Be CONFIDENT. “If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself for the battle?” St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 14v12.
– At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman in Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin what the framers had wrought. He replied that they had created a republic – if she and citizens like her could keep it. The everlasting moral of this little exchange is that nations and civilizations are fragile; they easily decline. We are only one generation away from barbarity. What if teachers stopped teaching, parents stopped instructing, pastors stopped preaching, libraries stopped circulating, bookmakers stopped publishing, booksellers stopped selling, etc.? Then our human heritage would be seriously diminished in just 25 years, for the rising generation would not know it, and life as we know it would end. Leadership must ensure the continuity of the important things.
My take on “servant leadership”:
We only serve what we love.
We only love what we know.
We only know what we have learned (through reading, hearing, studying, and reflecting on experience).
Now you can connect the dots between a liberal education at a university and leadership in the community. The Cook Leadership Academy endeavors to help leadership fellows fulfill their potential by advancing from study … to knowledge … to love … to service.
The French philosoph Voltaire had keen insight into one motivation to serve others, and his insight sheds light on servant leadership. The prevalence of evil and the limits of human knowledge lead many people – even the best theists among us – to believe that they do not know God as well as they desire to. (“Why did God let this tragedy happen to this child?”) Since it is difficult to love and serve what we do not really know, our fallback position is to love what we can know – our fellow human beings. When we know and love others, we empathize with them in their suffering. Instead of being a helpless bystander, we confront the banality of evil that God apparently allows. When we try to alleviate others’ suffering – when we try to take them to a better place – we become servant leaders. (This foundational human impulse also helps explain the rise of the secular progressive movement in the U.S. after the Civil War.)
Social psychologists from Gustav LeBon to Daniel Goleman have taught us that people’s brains (specifically their limbic system) align with each other psychologically. Effective leaders understand this phenomenon and take responsibility for setting the tone to get people to work toward a common goal. Think of Winston Churchill’s radio broadcasts to the British people during the Battle of Britain. His unexpected defiance steeled the nation’s resolve.
2. George Washington
3. Abraham Lincoln
4. Winston Churchill
5. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
(Cicero, Konrad Adenauer, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher also get mentions.)
For more on democratic statesmanship, see my blog post, “Democracy’s Greatest Leaders,” January 28, 2011.
Leading is heady, especially if you are fortunate enough to meet with a series of successes. It is crucial that you not let the successes go to your head. It will make you become arrogant and treat others with hubris. Remember: It is not our weaknesses that make us trip. It is too much of our strength that makes us trip.
Heroes, Saints, Leaders
In ages past, there were heroes and saints. People looked to heroes and saints, not celebrities, for inspiration. For models of fully realized, good human beings, our civilization educated the young to look to heroes (after Homer depicted them so brilliantly in the Iliad and Odyssey) and to saints (after the New Testament was written and the church was founded).
But in the modern age, we seem less inclined to seek inspiration from heroes and saints.Unfortunately, many youth nowadays look to celebrities to get their bearings on the path to the good life. Or their training in college equips them to become mere managers who have given little thought to the ethical requirements of leadership.
Experience eventually teaches us all that celebrity and managing are not enough. People who have outgrown their youthful indiscretions look higher, to leaders. Leaders are what we call the heroes and saints of secular modernity.All the leadership gurus and the books and articles they churn out are trying to define leadership in much the same way the church establishes and applies the rules for canonizing saints.
– Ultimately leadership is a civilizational mission.Don’t prattle on and on about leadership until you tell me where you want to go.It’s not just about traits and techniques.Leaders need to know where they are leading others. Tell us where you want to take us. In one minute or less, you should be able to tell us what needs to change, and what needs to stay the same.
To see where leaders want to take us, measure them by the past leaders they admire.Leaders should study the leaders of the past to see contrasting models and antimodels.
– Leaders should also study the empires and civilizations of the past.Every one of them carried within it the seeds of decline and dissolution and the seeds of growth and betterment.It’s the story of the wheat and the tares.Our empire and civilization are no different.The U.S. has within it the seeds of both decline and betterment.(Just like the human body.Each of us is carrying viruses and bacteria that could kill us if we continually make poor decisions by not eating right, or getting enough rest, etc.)Leaders thus make the difference between progress and decline.
Leaders must be discerning.They must be able to identify the seeds of destruction and the seeds of betterment.At the very least, they must do no harm.Ideally, they should be able to make prudent decisions that lead to the true betterment of human beings in community.
If leaders are well educated, then they know the big picture about empires and civilizations.Knowing the big picture, they will figure out the best policies that can win broad assent.For example, everybody ought to agree that fiscal responsibility is a virtue.We should spend within our means, and only spend beyond our means in an emergency.
It’s not happening in Washington.There is an air of unreality inside the Beltway because the pols there don’t have to balance the budget each year the way state governments and families do. Today’s professional pols are neither heroes nor saints.
We the People need to take back our government and take back our nation. We should start by hiring true leaders at the polls.