Two Essential Characteristics of a Great Leader

 “One of the costs of being humbly successful is that others will throw stones at you, and humility requires that you throw none back.” Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Dear Colleague,

Admiral James Stockdale died recently.  He had been the highest ranking U.S. military officer in the prisoner-of-war camp during the Vietnam War. Tortured over twenty times in eight years, Stockdale survived.

During imprisonment, he secretly communicated to his soldiers. He created conditions and systems that would increase the number of U.S. prisoners who survived.

He never lost faith, never doubted that he would get out, never doubted that he would prevail.  But he accomplished this with a brutal understanding of reality, called the Stockdale Paradox by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great.

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be,” Stockdale told Collins.

The leaders of today, leading large companies, small businesses or non-profit organizations, have to confront brutal reality every day.  Those who become great and leave legacies for a strong future have two characteristics.

  1. The first is the humility to keep their own personal interests and gain secondary to what is best for their company, even if it means taking on another role.  
  2. The second is to retain faith in their team, supporting them as people first, and employees second.

One of the remarkable events that the business community has experienced was the stepping down of Bill Gates from CEO of Microsoft.  Was this prompted by the life balance of a wonderful wife and children?  Was it his net worth of over 28 billion dollars?  Was it the humility of acknowledging that Bill wasn’t in his sweet spot as CEO?   And was it best for his company? The answer to all these questions is probably yes.

Humility is about legacy and the long view.  How do we want to be remembered?  Where are our contributions most needed and best utilized?   It may be in a top leadership position or it maybe as a trusted, supporting member of a team.  Or it may be as a one-person band, working out of the extra bedroom.  Humility and selflessness can show up anywhere.

Edward Hess, founder of The Values Based Leadership Institute at Emory’s Goizuetta Business School uses a term called Humble Operators. “Leadership is what is inside you that comes out.  Leaders set the standards and the behaviors.  Add humility, compassion for others, and stewardship and you have some of the ingredients for great leadership.”

The problem is that ego, self-promotion, and raw ambition have often gotten men and women to top levels in an organization or an industry.  So what’s the motivation to change behaviors?  Why change what has been working?  Because ego and ambition won’t turn you into a great leader. 

If humility is an inward condition, faithfulness is an outward expression.  Faithfulness is kind of an odd word to use in business.   It isn’t especially dynamic.  We think of a dog; faithful, passive and willing to take anything thrown its way.  However, faithfulness is dynamic in its effect.  Add an enduring faith in people to a leader’s makeup and it will strengthen and bond the diverse talent, varying opinions, and angry points of view.

An enduring faith in people, means that great leaders refuse to allow destructive behaviors in their companies.  Fierce in-fighting, cynicism, gossip, silos, and demonization will tear apart the strongest companies and the coolest products.   Finding a way to be a band of brothers and sisters is a competitive advantage that is available to every company.  Just look at one of the most competitive relationships today – that between George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Clinton was invited to the White House for the unveiling of his presidential portrait.  In a single gesture, George W. made William Jefferson Clinton feel included in the family.  The pivotal moment was when President Bush simultaneously unveiled a “Welcome Home” sign along with the portrait.  Bush said “ My dad and I refer to each other as 41 and 43.  We’re glad you are here 42.”

Clinton was visibly moved and recalls thinking, “There’s got to be a way for me to disagree with this man when I disagree with him, to support him when I can support him, and to express my personal good will toward him.”

These two leaders expressed a faith in each other, a willingness to extend not just the olive branch, but the whole darn tree.  The cynic may say, it’s just politics.  Maybe.   But Marc Landy, presidential scholar at Boston College observed, “Who would have thought?  It’s an example to the rest of the world.”

Susan sig