Sunday, May 17, 2020

The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many characteristics of effective leaders

This is the third of three posts on leadership.  In the first, I wrote about my definition of leadership and in the second about the role of power in leadership.  In this one, I will be reflecting on the characteristics of effective leaders.  I defined leadership as influencing the behavior of other people in a way that fully respected their freedom and autonomy.  This may not be everyone's definition but it is the one that I have concluded best describes leadership, the kind of leadership we are sorely missing today.  People in formal leadership positions have the power to influence others based on the authority and prerogatives delegated to them by the organization.  But everyone has personal power bases deriving from their personal characteristics and capacities.  In general reliance on positional power alone is not an effective long term strategy for effective leadership.

Leadership has probably never been more important to our organizations and communities than it is today.  Our ability to take collaborative action has become central to our social and economic health.  Our notion of a leader as a strong individual who knows best, makes crucial decisions, and tells others what to do, is no longer consistent with our understandings of human behavior and our values of human dignity and freedom.  Our society’s mistrust of authority should not be confused with a mistrust of leaders.  We do and should mistrust leaders who do not respect our freedom and instead rely on authority, power, and manipulation.  We do and should mistrust leaders who are more interested in their personal success rather than the common good.  Our realization that leaders do not necessarily act in our best interests has made us less compliant to exercises of authority and more needful of true leadership.

Characteristics of Effective Leadership

Given these new realities, what can we say about true leaders, those who influence our behavior while fully respecting our freedom?  After four years of listening to graduate students reflect on their experience and to the leaders who shared their experience with us, I came to the following conclusions about the characteristics of leaders.  Think they are even more relevant today.

Leaders respect the dignity and worth of each follower

Two behaviors are key to this.  First, such leaders do everything possible to reduce status differentials in groups and communities.  Status based on socioeconomic factors and job titles can probably never be eliminated from human groups, but leaders must work to de-emphasize those differentials rather than emphasize them.  Second, leaders must make clear by their behavior that they value and respect all followers, especially those who are less powerful, less healthy, less educated, younger, older, poorer, less skillful in communication, and different in race, language, religion, gender or sexual orientation from the majority.

No leader can successfully influence the behavior of other people unless they trust the leader.  The cornerstone of that trust is the confirmed belief that the leader values each follower and is guided by what is fair to all.

Leaders are learners.

They learn from success, but they especially learn from their failures to which they freely admit.  Leaders are constantly searching for the truth; they are open to reality even when that reality does not accord with their notions of what reality is or ought to be.  They can see things as they are and they are not frightened of the change which that view of reality will cause in their own thinking.  Leaders are not ideologues, though dictators typically are.

Leaders empower their followers.

The simplest way to understand the notion of empowerment is to appreciate that everyone in a group or community exercises leadership - not just the formal leader.  This occurs in an environment in which leadership is not seen solely as something which the elites do to the rest, but in which everyone can legitimately exercise influence over others.  Leaders must work diligently to create such a climate and to arrange the group or societal processes to nurture the leadership potential of all members, especially those who might be traditionally excluded from leadership.  This is not as much a question of sharing power as it is of developing the capacity of each follower to influence the behavior of others.  If empowerment is only seen as sharing power, one is acting out of a model of leadership that relies on coercion and manipulation because leaders can only share their positional power.

Leaders have a vision of how things can be different and better.

By definition, leaders are concerned about change.  If one is trying to influence the behavior of another, one does so out of some dissatisfaction with the current or likely behavior of the other.  One seeks to change that person’s behavior.  The direction and content of leadership behavior must be guided by a vision of how things can be not just different but better.  That vision of how things can be better must have the following characteristics.  There must be an authenticity about the vision based on a clear consistency with the leader’s own personal values - not just espoused values, but values which can be clearly seen in the leader’s personal behavior.  That vision must be clearly communicated in both the words and the personal behavior of the leader.  That vision must be drawn from the values of the followers.  That vision must draw people together around the fundamental values which give meaning to the lives of the individual members.  A charismatic leader is not someone who creates a vision and then uses it to lead people, but rather someone who draws on the values and meanings of the followers to articulate a common mission that provides meaning and direction to the group.

Leaders include rather than exclude.

Ken Blanchard, the author of the One Minute Manager, has articulated the reason for inclusion by quoting from a poster in an elementary school.  “None of us is as smart as all of us.”  The individualism that is deep in the American DNA can lead us to think that the important contributions as made by super individuals acting alone.  The reality is that important contributions are made by people working in teams.  The more talented and motivated the members of the team, the more effective is the team's work.  Effective leaders must facilitate the contributions of all followers.  Only in this way will the group or community be able to identify its true interest and goals and be able to work effectively to achieve them.

Leaders do their homework.

Leadership is always task-specific.  Leaders influence other people about specific issues, challenges, behaviors.  To influence other people, therefore, leaders must do their homework on the issues or challenges.  Leaders must develop and understand information on the specific issue and must be aware of the attitudes and positions of those they desire to influence.  Leaders who do not do their homework often are forced to rely on raw authority and coercive power which moves them away from effective leadership.

Effective leaders must be able to deal with ambiguity, uncertainty, and conflict

The number and rate of cultural and technological changes that characterize our world require leaders whose intellectual outlook and personal character enable them to operate effectively in a confused and conflicted situation.  This ability to act in such situations communicates a sense of confidence and potency to followers.

Idealism and Pragmatism - A Necessary Combination

In short, effective leaders today can be characterized as pragmatic idealists.  They must have a clear sense of values about the importance of all individuals and have the skills and understanding needed to influence the behavior of others while fully respecting their freedom.  It is not enough to be a visionary.  It has often been observed that there is no shortage of people with good, even revolutionary ideas; there is a shortage of people with good ideas who are able and willing to do the hard, pragmatic work of putting those ideas into practice.  If I have a vision of how things ought to be, but I am not willing to engage in the work of leadership - listening, learning, empowering, taking risks, and driving relentlessly for real implementation - I will be irrelevant, a “hopeless idealist,” “a fuzzy-thinking liberal,” or worse.  On the other hand, if I am skillful at implementing ideas without a clear sense of direction, I will become a “technocrat,” able to get things done, but not knowing what things to do or not do.


Never before in my lifetime, I have felt the lack of effective leadership in most areas of our life:  church, business, nonprofit organizations, and government.  As it always is, a crisis highlights the failings of leadership.  As Warren Buffet has wisely observed, "You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out."  In the church, it was the sexual abuse coverups.  In business, it was the frauds and shady dealings leading up to the Great Recession of 2008.  In the nonprofit world, it was the financial misappropriation of funds and failure to protect children.  In government, it was the pathetic efforts of the clown car Trump administration to protect us from COVID-19.  Americans can and do disagree on politics and government policies but surely all Americans can agree that we deserve competent and effective leadership from those who would present themselves as leaders.  

I believe these characteristics of effective leadership should be the criteria by which we judge those who hold formal leadership positions:

Effective leaders
  1. respect the dignity and worth of individuals
  2. are constantly learning
  3. empower followers and create a culture of leadership
  4. have a vision of how things can be different and better and effectively communicate that vision
  5. include rather than exclude
  6. do their homework
  7. effectively deal with ambiguity, uncertainty, and conflict
  8. must be pragmatic idealists
These are the standards of leadership to which we as employees, citizens, members, and clients have a right.  As employees, members, and clients, we very often do not have a voice in the selection of those who would lead us.  But in government we do.  Elections and politics are our ways to have a voice in that selection.  Before we look at policies and partisan issues, we need to look at the quality of the leadership candidates will provide us.   This has never been more important.

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