In this political season, we hear a lot of talk about leadership.
But what qualities make a good leader – in government, business or the law?
The answers might surprise you, according to experts on the subject.
National Public Radio recently ran a three-part series examining leadership from different angles. In one segment, Harvard psychologist and business professor Gautama Mukunda, author of Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter, says great leaders often come out of left field:
[They] tend not to be battle-tested and experienced. They do unexpected stuff because no one really knows what they’re going to do.
Think of it this way: If the right decision is obvious, it doesn’t really matter who the leader is. The next person in line would make the exact same decision.
“The very best decisions, the decisions that go down in history, [the ones where] we look back at that person and think, ‘wow, they’re a genius,’ is when they say, you know, ‘we’re going to do this,’ and all the experts say, ‘no, that’s an awful idea, you know, don’t do that’ and they do it anyways and it works out,” Mukunda says.
Here are some other qualities that make a great leader, according to the report:
- They are outsiders. Remarkable leaders rarely rise to the top by climbing the traditional ladder. Likely as not they sneak in through a side window. They have a different perspective because they come from a different place.
- They learn from defeats. Superb leaders have often felt the bitter sting of failure. But instead of quitting, they survive to become smarter and stronger. Case in point: Abraham Lincoln was widely regarded as a political loser and an ineffective hick right up until he proceeded to save the country from ripping apart.
- They make the tough calls. Doing what anyone else in your position would do is not the test of leadership. As an example, Mukunda cites President Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to declare war on Japan after Pearl Harbor. No other president would have done otherwise. Many instances marked President Roosevelt as an outstanding leader, Mukunda argues, but that was not one of them.
- They have long-range vision. Weak leaders focus on the next battle. Strong leaders have an overriding, passionate goal. They focus on posterity.
- They don’t always play well with others. In fact, leaders who try too hard to get along with people are more likely to become embroiled in scandal. They shy away from difficult choices that might alienate their best friends.
- They don’t have to ooze charisma. Or at least they didn’t until radio and television came along. George Washington wasn’t particularly outgoing, charming, socially skilled or energetic, says Dean Simonton, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis. In fact, by today’s standards, his delivery of his first inaugural address would have been viewed as a career-killer. “He was very timid, visibly nervous, wasn’t very dynamic. People were disappointed,” Simonton says.
In this world of YouTube and Twitter – where every gesture and utterance is dissected, debated and disseminated – George Washington would not stand a chance of winning election, Simonton says.
Some would call that ironic. Others might say tragic.
A leader would probably say it is what it is, and forge bravely ahead.