Defining just what makes a leader effective remains as difficult today as it ever was. But that does not prevent us from seeking to distil their secrets – quite the reverse.
Of course, there must be almost as many theories on leadership as there are leaders themselves and models for the best kind of leadership change with the times.
In the 15th century, Niccolo Machiavelli advocated a combination of cunning and intimidation as a way to more effective leadership. His philosophy, if not his practices, became unfashionable some time ago – thank God!
“Great Man” theories, popular in the 19th century and early this century are based on the notion of the “born leader” who has innate talents that cannot be taught. An alternative approach that is still in vogue is based on trying to identify the key traits of effective leaders.
Behaviorist theory prefers to see leadership in terms of what leaders do, rather than their individual characteristics, and it tries to identify the different roles they fulfil. More recently, attention has moved away from the individual in the leadership role, to embrace a more holistic view and investing less in what some commentators refer to as the “myth of the heroic leader.”
To those who would suggest that great leaders are born, not made, I would say this: We can examine all of the great leaders in history – and I have examined most of them – to identify some common characteristics, but we cannot say they were “Born Leaders” They all developed into their leadership roles over a period of time, learning the skills along the way.
Some appear to have the gift of leadership but are found to lack it when tested. Others are recognized as “born leaders” and exercise effective leadership up to a certain level but prove disastrous failures beyond that level. It is very hard to judge the point beyond which a person will be over-promoted.
Conversely, a few rise higher than they, or anyone else, could have imagined and then prove equal to the challenge.
A case in point was Harry S. Truman. He seemed unlikely to achieve greatness beyond the level of a US Senator. Only Franklin D. Roosevelt’s incredibly casual, last-minute choice of him as running-mate for the 1944 election, soon followed by Roosevelt’s death, precipitated him into a situation where, as he said, he felt that the moon and stars had fallen on him. But he grew in the office of President and achieved a stature that surprised everyone, including probably himself. He was a man who seemed to be over-promoted but was not.
Churchill and de Gaulle – two of the greatest leaders of modern times – also depended upon chance for the fulfilment of their potential. But they had formidable talent and limitless self-belief. Destiny seemed to wait on them. They were manifestly above the ordinary run of humanity and made no attempt to conceal the fact!
It is my view that of all the qualities needed for leadership, only one is indispensable – courage. Without it, all the others are more or less useless. A leader must have the ability to take hard decisions and calculated risks. This rule applies at all levels and in all situations – in school, factory, boardroom or sporting arena, no less than on the battlefield or in the council chamber.
I do believe that great leaders can be developed – I have to believe that, because currently, we have far too few of them in the world, but we are certainly over-blessed with managers.