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What Real Leadership Looks Like

November 17, 2013

I’ve been teaching leadership at San Diego State University for six years now and attempting to practice it for the better part of the last 51 years (since I started college at Fairfield University).  Over that span of years I’ve been an infantry NCO in the 82nd Airborne Division, a corporate CEO multiple times, a management consultant, mentor, board member, jury foreman, and teacher.  In addition to fulfilling the leadership role myself, I’ve also had the good fortune to observe some wonderful leaders – at all levels – up close.

The older I get – and the more I reflect upon leadership – the more I find myself focusing on a few fundamentals that I think represent the core foundation of an effective leader’s behavior.  At a time when the U.S. is in desperate need for some effective leadership, I thought it might be worthwhile to review those principles.

The first fundamental is essentially a lifted quote from Max DePree in “Leadership Jazz”: “the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”  This, in turn, requires the ability to accurately size up one’s environment and the courage to level with one’s followers about the implications.  Churchill comes to mind as someone who, in the early days of the Battle of Britain, found a way to explain the stakes without the barest coating of sugar … and yet left his countrymen encouraged and resolute.

The ability to engage in some critical thinking helps in the task of assessing reality. And by critical thinking, I mean mature, sophisticated reasoning leavened with the recognition of the possibility of error and self-delusion.  Ideology and intellectual arrogance are its polar opposites.  The furthest thing from a critical thinker is the “true believer” (see Eric Hoffer on this one), the zealot blinded by his own certainty and often dangerously intent on compelling conformity with his own views.

The second fundamental is an almost genetic bias for action; an inability to remain dormant in the face of either problem or opportunity; a refusal to by-stand. Intelligence is not enough, nor is wisdom: you have to be capable of pulling the trigger on meaningful action.

I am often astounded by the otherwise highly intelligent people I’ve observed – who hold clear positions requiring leadership behaviors – who are unable to take the step from recognition of a need for action… to action itself.

The final factor in effective leadership that I want to include here is the whole notion of accountability.  I include it as much for its current absence on the American scene as for its importance.  The sure sign of avoidance of accountability is the use of the passive voice, as in “mistakes were made,” or “the gun went off.”  Accountability means you own your decisions and their outcomes.


In a 1989 book about World War II, Paul Fussell related the story of Dwight Eisenhower’s behavior on the eve of D-Day in June 1944.

“… entirely alone and for the moment disjunct from his publicity apparatus, changed
the passive voice to active in the penciled statement he wrote out to have ready when
  the invasion was repulsed, his troops torn apart for nothing, his planes ripped and
                smashed to no end, his warships sunk, his reputation blasted: ‘ Our landings in the
Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn
the troops.’  Originally he wrote, ‘the troops have been withdrawn,’ as if by some distant,
anonymous agency instead of by an identifiable man making all-but-impossible decisions.
Having ventured this bold revision, and secure in his painful acceptance of full personal
accountability, he was able to proceed un-evasively with ‘My decision to attack at this
time and place was based on the best information available.’  Then, after the conventional
credit distributed equally to ‘the troops, the air, and the navy,’ came Eisenhower’s noble
acceptance of total personal responsibility: ‘ If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt,
it is mine alone.’”


Using these three hallmarks, it is hard to find anyone in American public life at the moment that might qualify as an effective leader.  In fact, one is tempted to say that our operative definition of leadership nowadays is: “the wealthiest person we can stomach for 18 months of groveling over-exposure during a political campaign”… hardly a promising formula.  Judging by the dynamics of American political campaigning – particularly on the national level – one might conclude that not only do the American people not want an unvarnished tour of reality, and an invitation to action, but that they’d prefer to be coddled, praised, and told comforting lies about their mythic uniqueness.

Of course, the times and our predicament call for nothing less than mature leadership.  Ideally, that leadership would emerge at all levels of society, local as well as national. It would call a spade a spade, initiate and inspire action, and hold itself accountable for results.

What’s in the way of that happening?

The barrier, the cork in the bottle if you will, is our sclerotic political culture, which has deteriorated into a cash and influence-driven race to the bottom of the relevance curve by the lifers in both parties.  When you look up the word “leader” in the dictionary, Harry Reid’s photo does not appear. Neither does John Boehner’s. I’ll pass over our most recent Presidential candidates in silence.

The bad news is that history is not likely to put itself on hold in hopes that we’ll get our act together.

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