The most basic ingredient of successful management is leadership, but precisely what leadership is, is very difficult to describe. Leadership is like panache, sophistication, or charisma, easy to say and generally understood in context but almost impossible to describe. Everyone seems to have their own understanding and description of leadership but an excellent and succinct summary of leadership can be found in the Walt Disney movie, “A Bugs Life”. Here the arch villain Hopper, explains to the Ant Princess that the “first rule of leadership is you (the leader) are always at fault”. True, this is a somewhat negative view of leadership but nevertheless, it does summarize the absolute fundamental of leadership in one simple sentence. The leader is always responsible for the result, good or bad. But as any leader can tell you, if the results are good it is due to the efforts of those being led but if the results are bad, it is the leader’s fault alone. Consequently, leadership is really a test of courage, the courage to make a decision and to accept the responsibility of that decision regardless of the outcome. And as simple as it may sound this courage to make a decision and to accept sole responsibility is what distinguishes a leader from the pack.
The words, courage and bravery are not words that one ordinarily associates with business leaders. Usually these are reserved for individuals engaged in activities that involve physical danger, but any manager who has been confronted with decisions that jeopardize their career or their company, knows the heart stopping fear associated with them. However, not all business decisions involve grave risk any more than decisions made by police officers or firemen involve personal danger. But there is always the possibility that something unexpected may happen and it is this uncertainty of the outcome that requires the courage to act.
Once we reflect on the qualities of leadership, we recognize that the term leadership is bandied about rather carelessly. We find that the media has designated various people as religious leaders, political leaders, school leaders, and even business leaders. Unfortunately, when we are asked to describe precisely what makes these people leaders, most of us are rather unsure. In fact, in most cases if these people were stripped of their position and title, they would not immediately jump to mind as leaders. This does not mean that they are not leaders or have no leadership skills, in fact many do, but it underscores the problem many of us have in distinguishing leadership from position and title. The basic assumption seems to be that if a person holds a position of authority they are ipso facto a leader! Yet the history books are filled with individuals who were kings, presidents, prime ministers, and even generals who are mainly remembered for their ineptitude and lack of leadership skill. Therefore, personal wealth, titles, or hierarchical position is not, in its self, a determinant of a person’s leadership. And this brings us to the very fundamental question of “what distinguishes a leader from everyone else?”
According to the military, a group which has studied leadership for a very long time, leaders are distinguished by certain character traits that seem to have disappeared or have fallen into disuse. Words like integrity, loyalty, courage, and just are used to describe leaders but somehow the very meanings of these words seem to have been diminished as we view what passes for leaders today. Much of this decline can be traced to the routine application of the term leader to anyone who occupies a position with a title. This can be seen everywhere, from popularly elected politicians (popularity is not indicative of leadership), to senior executives, to team leaders at the threshold of the management chain. Admittedly all of these people should be leaders but as we all know many are not and few seem to display those character traits listed above, that distinguish a leader.
In fact the leaders today, especially those who hold elective office, are pale shadows of pale shadows of the leaders of old. A good example of this was the sign on Harry Truman’s desk in the Oval Office, “The Buck Stops Here”. How many politicians or CEO’s today are willing to step up and accept total responsibility? Remember it was President Truman who rebutted a critic by pointing out that “if you don’t like what I am doing don’t vote for me!” This kind of response coming from any politician today would be unthinkable.
The very essence of leadership is the willingness to make the tough, unambiguous choices that will have an impact on the fate of the organization and to assume responsibility for the result, without excuses or attempts to off load the blame on to some else or an external event. It is the courage to make these “you bet your job” decisions that sets the leader apart from those who want to be leaders but flinch from this responsibility. As we examine out current political landscape it would be useful to compare these political leaders in terms of their commitment, candor, moral courage, truthfulness, and integrity. When this measure is applied the decline of leadership in those who term themselves, leaders become very apparent.