Take a moment and try to think of an example of a great leader.  This can be someone you know—or know about.  This can be an ancient historical figure or someone living today.  Once you have done this, what adjectives come to mind?  Specifically, what characteristics or attributes do you associate with them?  Now think of a great manager, and list the characteristics or attributes they possess?  Now put the two lists side by side.  Do you find many of the attributes are the same, or are they mostly different?  Let me introduce some specific examples.  I will start by describing four effective leaders.

Abraham and Martin

One of the first things that come to mind when I think of Abraham Lincoln is integrity and high ideals.  Inspired speeches like the Gettysburg Address float through my head, and I can almost sense the overcast skies under which he gave his address; his tired and haggard expression, combined with a booming voice filled with passion and conviction.  He had a vision, and he was able to inspire others to share that vision.

Or, how about Martin Luther King Jr.?  Once again, ideals, integrity and intestinal fortitude come to mind when I think of this great leader.  Even though he was utterly passionate in his feelings about the social injustices that were going on in the world, he had a vision, a dream of a better time and place when all people could live together in equality, peace and harmony.  He also knew this dream carried with it a price.  And he was unwilling to compromise on his ideal of nonviolent protest, even though he had a premonition that he would ultimately be a victim of such violence.  In an excerpt from his I See The Promised Land speech he said:

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”[1]

At this point you may be saying, “Both of these examples are of leaders who were assassinated, causing their merits to be exaggerated”.  I will grant you that history tends to embellish the greatness of people who lose their lives fighting for a noble cause. What I am talking about is much more significant.  Let’s look at examples of two people who were not martyred.  The first will be another political figure and the second is anything but.

Ronald Reagan

Regardless of whether you agreed with his supply side economics, or felt he was not always close enough to the details surrounding the job of President of the United States, few can argue that Ronald Reagan was not an effective leader.  He was able to inspire Americans to once again believe in themselves as a great nation.  He was able to bring a sense of hope and optimism back to a country that suffered through two decades of guilt, shame and embarrassment.  Much of the guilt and shame came from a disastrous war in Southeast Asia, where, in the midst of a tragedy, where thousands of lives were lost, the debate was reduced to whether we were at war or involved in a conflict.   Debates of that nature occur only when we lose our vision and purpose as a people.  The embarrassment we suffered came from a different dynamic.  We were dealing with the onslaught of global competition, and were being thrummed soundly by the Japanese—a country that learned most of their management techniques from us!  In the midst of this, President Reagan brought a sense of purpose and vision back to the people.  And he was able to communicate it in such a way that it caught fire!  People started to believe once again.  They started to believe in the strength of their military.  They began believing in the strength of their economy and global competitiveness.  And they began believing in themselves; mostly because a former Hollywood actor had a vision, was able to communicate that vision, and had the intestinal fortitude and stamina to take a position that was viewed as naive, old fashion, and no longer relevant.  He became a symbol of integrity, enthusiasm and hope for the future. Unfortunately he was stricken with Alzheimer—a disease that attacks the brain.  It seems ironically sad to me that someone who had such a wonderful and fulfilled life did not enjoy the capacity to remember it in retirement.  I hope he had, at least, glimpses of his accomplishments.

Mother Teresa

My final example is someone, whose name may not roll off your tongue when asked to list a great leader, but is one just the same.  While you may not immediately think of Mother Teresa as a great leader, she possessed all the stuff of a great leader.  Most notably, she had a vision that she was able to communicate to people throughout the world.  If you are skeptical at this point, ask yourself this simple question.  “What did Mother Teresa do and stand for?”  Even the least informed individual can answer that question in three words; FEED THE POOR.  That may not sound significant at first, until we consider that few people in history have been able to communicate a vision in so few words.  In an interview shortly before her death when Mother Teresa was asked, rather critically, why she spent so much of her time and energy feeding the poor rather than treating the root cause of poverty, which the interviewer asserted was ignorance, she had this answer.  “If someone else hears a voice telling them that they need to educate the poor and hungry, they should put their energies into that.  The voice I hear is telling me to feed the hungry.”[2] This is a profoundly simple and powerful vision.  Not only has this great leader communicated her vision to the world, she has also provided the example that it can be accomplished.  No one believed that man could run a four-minute mile until it was accomplished—until we had an example (I still don’t believe it is really possible).  No one believed that we could put a person on the moon until someone had the courage to verbalize a vision in such a way that others could start to dream it with him.

Now that I have provided you with just a few examples, can you think of others?  What about the poignant symbolism General Norman Schwarzkopf exhibited during Desert Storm, as he led the US in the quick and decisive defeat over the Army of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  Operating from his field headquarters, he stood in full view of the entire world—thanks to CNN.  For those of us who had the opportunity to see this real life drama unfold before our eyes we saw something that was an inspiration to every soldier under his command.  He wore his khakis.  That’s right, his fatigues.  Now why do you suppose something as simple as apparel would make a difference?  Many of us, when placed in a similar situation would have probably chosen to wear our best and finest military garb.  After all, this was being televised to the entire world, and isn’t it important to look the part of a general and a powerful leader?  Maybe it is, but it was not nearly as important as the need to show the people under his command that he was one of them!  That is exactly what he did, and it was a brilliant display of leadership.

© Mark P. Loschiavo


[1] http://www.mlkonline.net/promised.html

[2] Story related to me from Chris Ware, Lexington Herald Leader, and old college friend.

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