Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Leadership: The Essentials Across All Domains

What is leadership? Are there characteristics that recognized exceptional leaders share? These are questions that are, of course, debatable, but which I found interesting in Howard Gardner’s book “Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership.”

Gardner concludes after studying acknowledged leaders in a variety of fields that there are six common traits that they share. The list of people he chose to base his research on include George Marshall, Martin Luther King, Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead, Jean Monnet, Margaret Thatcher, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Mahatma Gandhi, Pope John Paul XXIII, Alfred Sloan, and J. Robert Oppenheimer.

A simple Webster’s definition of “lead” is ‘to show the way to, or direct the course of; to guide, or cause to follow.’ In order to do this, a leader must be able to interact with a specific audience that he/she wants to inspire in order to achieve some common goal(s). Gardner develops six constants of leadership that he identified from his pool of individuals, constants that are independent of the domain in which a person has achieved leadership status since they were common in the areas of politics, scientific and technological institutions, business, and education.

The six constants of leadership are:

Leaders must have an identifiable story or message to tell. The story must address the sense of individual and group identity (differentiate between “we” and “they”), and typically not only provide background information relevant to a cause, but also outline future options in terms of action and how the group can go about trying to attain specific goals. Preferably, leaders try to develop stories that are most often inclusionary, so individuals feel as if they are part of something worthwhile and the movement or institution the leaders are in charge of can expand. But there is a fine balance effective leaders are able to reach because if one is interested in making connections with larger and larger groups, then certain subgroups may develop that feel they are entitled to some form of special status, and if they are not recognized as such, they may challenge the leader for power, influence and/or control. This problem with trying to develop an inclusonary story is readily observed in poltical parties, where conflicts arise frequently between various subgroups and individuals, all of whom want to have raised status and a voice in the party.

Consideration of the audience is a second constant of leadership. The relationship between a leader and an audience is interactive and complex, to say the least. But if there is no audience to lead, there is no need for a leader. A movement of any sort requires a dynamic interplay between the needs, concerns, and desires of the audience and the contours of the leader’s story. Effective leaders must develop a fresh story to fit the audience’s initial needs and not only say some things the audience wants to hear, but then convince the audience that he/she has a plan of action that will take the audience to wherever it is they want to go. Some times a leader needs to define where that place is that the audience needs to get to (perhaps where a nation needs to go in order to rebound from hard times, such as Marshall needed to do), and some times that place is well defined and a leader needs to outline the steps and organize multiple subgroups within the audience in order to achieve a common goal (much like Oppenheimer had to do with the Manhattan Project). Leaders of homogenous audiences tend to have an easier time making changes than leaders of heterogeneous groups. Effective leaders also must be able to take their original story and tweak it rapidly in response to the mood of the audience if they are to maintain control, and often this skill is the type that cannot be taught, but is rather an innate characteristic of a leader (and one of the reasons why effective leaders are hard to find in any realm).

A third constant of leadership is the development of an institutional or organizational foundation. Leaders can speak directly to the audience on given occasions, but without organizational structure enduring leadership is unlikely, in not impossible. Perhaps the organization already exists and a leader works his/her way up through the organization. This is the case the majority of the time in groups like churches, businesses, political parties, educational institutions, and so on. It is not as common to bring in outsiders for well established organizations, unless there are individuals who have had success in other, similar organizations and another group is looking for some dynamic individual to turn things around. Other organizations need to be built from scratch. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Oppenheimer, however, are examples of leaders who had to build up organizations, and this requires leaders to have stories that are inspiring, logical, and also lay down a path of getting to a certain point that appears to be doable to the audience. If the story is too complex or confusing, or the leader does not appear to be passionate or charismatic enough about the cause, it is likely the audience will not respond or develop into the organization that the leader is trying to build. This connects to the next constant of leadership.

A fourth constant of leadership is the embodiment of the story by the leader. No person is perfect, and normally an audience is not looking for or is expecting perfection. However, someone who steps in and wants to lead needs to appear legitimate. They need to not only have a good, effective story, but their lives and actions need to suggest that the story is relevant in that person’s own life. If someone appears to be hypocritical, or if there appears to be a contradiction between the story and the facts of the person’s existence, an audience is unlikely to respond in a positive way. Leaders need to appear to be authentic, and not just someone who is looking for a position of power and will say anything they think the audience wants to hear. As Gardner reminds us, Abraham Lincoln once said, “One cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”

A fifth constant of leadership is the interplay between direct and indirect leadership. There is the possibility of indirect leadership in creative fields such as art, music, literature, and other creative fields through the symbolic products certain individuals have developed. Entire artistic movements develop from influential leaders without those leaders necessarily directly addressing the audience. Often indirect leadership of this sort takes longer periods of time to develop, and the leaders who attempt to stay out of the spotlight tend to have more time to reflect and consider their next contributions without too much of a rush. There are also indirect leaders in politics and business, who do not seek to directly address a larger audience (such as running directly for public office), but prefer to affect change and influence behind the scenes. Much of what a president or CEO does, for instance, is largely ceremonial and requires a direct leader to be in the public’s eye, whereas a chief of staff works behind the scenes in order to get the policymaking done. On the other hand, direct leadership is more risky and up-tempo. Direct leaders need to be able to take the audience’s pulse and may have little time to reflect on how best to tweak how things are going. Leading in this manner generally requires a different skill set than in indirect leadership, and in the end leaders must determine how to make the biggest impact, either within a specific domain or with a wider society.

A sixth and final constant of leadership is the issue of expertise. In nearly every domain of experience today, some leaders will lack important technical knowledge, and the same can be true of some audiences. This situation becomes more relevant for those who want to lead directly over a larger society than for those who want to lead indirectly. In many specialized organizations, say a university or corporation, leaders may emerge who are not the top experts of the domain, but rather have better technical expertise and skills in management. This needs to be considered by leaders and those who seek leadership roles. At times this requires intimate knowledge or a ‘feel’ for the audience. Political leaders face this in a general campaign, for example. The audience, which is the general public, tends to be nonexpert on most issues. The details of the health care system, foreign relationships, economic principles, race relations, educational policy, tax codes, and so on, are all very complicated and technical areas of study, and those who wish to be political leaders need to be aware of the lack of technical expertise of those who they are often addressing, especially on the stump. The story often becomes generalized, and details are often overlooked as a dumb-downed outline of specific plans or policies is presented. This is where ‘people skills’ and the perception of personality becomes so vital for want-to-be leaders. A good example of this comes in the last two presidential campaigns. I don’t think anyone will disagree that Al Gore and John Kerry had the upper-hand when it came to technical expertise on issues and policy compared to George W. Bush. But because the audience of voters quickly becomes lost when details are presented, the Gore and Kerry stories did not have the same impact on the audience that the Bush story did, who kept it to character traits and a simple, consistent message. Especially in the current environment, the information age, this aspect of leadership has become much more important for individuals to consider than ever before. Add to this the range and use of technology in a leadership role, and one can better appreciate why leaders today often need to have established personal organizations that include consultants of all types.

These are the six constants of leadership as identified by Gardner. In general, I found his examination and conclusions to be thorough, and I encourage others to add their two cents to the list. The list of six constants seems to me, at least, to be valid, reasonable and essential for all leaders in all domains to consider. Different individuals have their own personalities and flaws, strengths and weaknesses, and styles of leadership they are comfortable with. But in the end, they do need a story, regardless of the domain they wish to lead in. They need to consider the audience, and how they think the audience will best respond to a story. Individuals need to be seen as authentic. They may be able to lead indirectly, under the appropriate conditions, or they may need to get in front of a crowd and directly address the audience’s concerns. And for long-lasting influence, an organization is essential.

This analysis, as recognized by Gardner, does not address many other aspects of leadership, such as leaders as moral authorities, how leaders should develop and shape policy, and so on, because that is the next level of leadership that is specific to the domain and to the individual, and the variation on those aspects of leadership is cast and cannot be modeled in a general way.

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