A Great Leader


A Great Leader

I’m pulling together the October issue of PT and am humbled by the articles we have on hand. We reached out to organizations industry wide and received nearly 30 responses. The goal was to have a description of ‘leadership.’ In other words, “what makes a leader.” We gave them a choice of writing an article, or answering a series of questions. You will see the result in October.

I thought I might give it a go and see if I could describe ‘leadership’. Writing in the Harvard Business review…

W.C.H. Prentice rejects the notion of leadership as the exercise of power and force or the possession of extraordinary analytical skill. Prentice defined leadership as “the accomplishment of a goal through the direction of human assistants” and a successful leader as one who can understand people’s motivations and enlist employee participation in a way that marries individual needs and interests to the group’s purpose. Attempts to analyze leadership tend to fail because the would-be analyst misconceives his task. He usually does not study leadership at all. Instead he studies popularity, power, showmanship, or wisdom in long-range planning. Some leaders have these things, but they are not of the essence of leadership.

If you think about it, the qualities we think of when discussing a ‘great leader,’ actually are of little interest if they didn’t have a goal to reach and then didn’t reach that goal. Being able to ‘rally the troops’ is of no value if you lose the war.

If you read a list of leadership qualities, one that is most always listed is perseverance. A former boss told me that perseverance was the only important quality a person can have. Without it, you don’t see yourself through the rough times. You run when things push back, you find excuses for failure, rather than not accepting it.

We asked those who responded what historical figure they felt were examples of great leaders. The two names that came up most were Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill. They both led their countries during times of great crisis. And they exemplified the definition I listed above. They accomplished a goal through the direction of human assistants. Lincoln held the North together until the South could be defeated, and Churchill was able to hold England together until the US entered the war. Each knew from early in their careers that evil was lurking nearby, and never shirked from naming it.

I wonder if the ability to select those “human assistants” isn’t a quality that might find its way into a leader. I know in my case, I have been through dozens of employees in our tiny company. Why couldn’t I understand that they wouldn’t work out. Often, I let them stay long past the time when I saw that they weren’t going to cut it. What could we have accomplished had I acted sooner? We will never know.

I’m not sure we can name great leaders until history has a chance at them. Churchill was in and out of power in England almost as many times as he changed his socks. Even when he was appointed Prime Minister at the beginning of WWII, there were many in the government who were unsure. It took a view through a long lens that would show he was the right person for the moment.

One of Lincoln’s greatest traits was the ability to work with his opponents. His ability to see value where other could not. This was seen by many at the time as a great fault. But we honor him through history.

I see a great leader as one who persevered through adversity, who left an legacy, and who succeeded in his or her goals. I have great respect for those who, as Teddy Roosevelt said:

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

A great leader has been in the arena, and has known both victory and defeat.


Picture of John Van Horn

John Van Horn

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