The Public Relations Strategist

Following the leader: What makes the great ones so good

November 6, 2008

Copyright © 2008 PRSA. All rights reserved.

By Chris Cobb

The following article appears in the fall 2008 issue of The Strategist. Editor’s note: The print version of this article incorrectly identified Jack Welch’s former employer. The online version includes the proper attribution.

From Winston Churchill to Jack Welch, from Mahatma Gandhi to Tom Coughlin: Great leaders come in many forms and climb to the heights of success. The question: What makes a great or even good leader?

The answer: Well, the experts say that there isn’t just one.

The Churchills and the Gandhis are rare cases of people who became world famous, historic emblems of great leadership. Leaders like former GE CEO Welch and New York Giants coach Coughlin are more common. These types of people carry out their responsibilities with high degrees of skill, watched and pressured by shareholders, boards of directors, teams they lead, news media, or the unforgiving fan — as is the case with Coughlin and other pro-sports leaders.

And while it helps to have certain innate personal attributes, some believe that the “born” or “natural” leader is largely a myth.

The ability of most leaders to lead effectively won’t save the world from tyranny, but as anyone affected by the Wall Street meltdown can testify, leaders can create or break vibrant, viable companies and directly impact the lives of millions of ordinary families. Good leadership matters.

The right place at the right time
Joseph Nye, a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and author of several books on leadership, believes that good leaders are often people in the right place at the right time.

“A good leader has to have the ability to adapt his or her skills to different contexts,” says Nye, who was formerly the chairman of the National Intelligence Council and the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. “For example, Churchill is often seen as the greatest leader of the 20th century, but in 1940, before Hitler invaded France, he was regarded as a failed politician. When the context changed and Hitler was pushing British troops into the sea, Churchill became the man of the moment.”

Few leaders have what Nye refers to as “contextual intelligence” — the ability to adapt successfully to any milieu.

 “Dwight Eisenhower was a successful general, a successful president of Columbia University and a successful president of the United States,” Nye says. “Others are successful in one context and not in others.”

Importance of good relationships
Diana McLain Smith, a Boston-based management consultant and author of “Divide or Conquer: How Great Teams Turn Conflict Into Strength,” says good leaders need extraordinary vision and the ability to turn that into a robust strategy. She believes that they need to have sharp analytical skills and should be smart, but not necessarily brilliant. A clear understanding of relationships is constantly neglected, she says.

“[Possessing leadership skills] is quite different from having interpersonal skills,” says Smith. “For leaders to lead effectively, they need a sophisticated understanding of how relationships work and how relationships can be changed. It is a critical dimension of leadership and one that will become increasingly important as organizations change and become much less dependent on a structure of hierarchy.”

Smith points to the disastrous relationship between Apple’s Steve Jobs and John Sculley — two strong leaders in their own way, but whose differing views on how to direct their company ultimately caused its economic decline.

“At first they looked like the perfect match,” Smith says. “Sculley had marketing experience and a good deal of business acumen whereas Steve Jobs was intuitive, charismatic and a visionary.” However, when the business became unstable, their models of leadership did not mesh well together. Sculley, the former PepsiCo. president, was more controlling, and Jobs was often unpredictable, she explains.

In contrast, adds Smith, consider the relationship between President Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, who had many differences but worked together to keep focused on their mission to save the world from fascist oppression.

“They both kept the relationship and the mission in mind and invested heavily in both,” she says. “They understood that their relationship was a strategic asset that they had to manage or it would become a liability.”

Nye says that a frequent mistake among business leaders is refusing to accept that leadership can also have a shelf life. 

“When a company is small,” he says, “it often needs a genius-type entrepreneur. But when the company grows, that leader might not be able to manage people because he is not willing to delegate. It’s common behavior among leaders who have built a company based on their own thinking, but they fail. As a company scales up, they often have to change their leader.”

In the early years of the 21st century, you can see a shift from top-down autocratic leadership to a softer, more inspirational style. Coach Coughlin, operating in the hyper-macho world of pro football, is one who made that dramatic leap almost overnight.

Last season, Coughlin entered the season under a barrage of criticism for his domineering style. He was on the verge of losing his job when he created a player council and made time to discuss players’ personal lives with them.

Regarding Coughlin, Giants president, CEO and co-owner John Mara told Sports Illustrated: “Nobody thought he could change. But the changes he made with communication — particularly forming the leadership council — were a good signal to the players that he was not a dictatorial person.”

Hard and soft power
In his latest book “The Powers to Lead,” Nye refers to this new, evolving leadership style as “soft power.” Any effective leader has to be shooting for “smart power,” which is a mix of soft and hard skills. Soft power inspires with charm and charisma, while hard power is the more traditional carrot-and-stick approach.

“In the industrial era,” Nye says, “hierarchy was the dominant form of organization, and hard power was suited for that. But in the modern communications or service-based economy, the leaders have to be thought of not as king of the mountain but as center of the circle.”

Nye explains that being at the center of the circle means “not giving orders but attracting people to you — which is soft power. While hard and soft power are both important, the proportion of soft power is going up in the mix.”

On the front lines, soft power has an increasingly important role too, Nye says.

Even Eisenhower seemed to have this concept figured out: “You do not lead by hitting people over the head — that’s assault, not leadership,” he once famously said.

Followers matter
Author and scholar Barbara Kellerman, who lectures on politics at Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership, says the most neglected aspect in the study of leadership is the importance of followers.

Kellerman agrees with Nye that great leaders are shaped by the circumstances in which they find themselves, but says that understanding the needs and wants of followers is vital to a leader’s success.

In her book “Followership,” Kellerman examines the increasing power of followers.

“[They] have always been more important than we in the leadership field give them credit for,” she says.

Kellerman cites stockholder activists as being partly responsible for an increasing turnover of CEOs. People who are not ordinarily considered as leaders are becoming more powerful than the actual leaders of the 21st century. She goes on to discuss the example of former Harvard University president Larry Summers, who was pushed out of office by the faculty. As she stresses, “Followers have more to say than ever before.”

Beyond that, Kellerman asserts that there is no magic, one-size-fits-all leadership formula.

“What it takes to be a good leader on the battlefield,” she says, “is different from what it takes to be a good Boy Scout leader.” She adds that there are many different types of leaders, and the required skills vary depending on the specific role or environment.

And while she sees an increase in the use of soft power, Kellerman says it has its limitations in some situations.

“If I’m in a hurricane,” she says, “do I need someone in control and taking charge? Probably.”

The making of a good leader
Susan Bethanis, CEO/founder of the San Francisco consulting firm Mariposa Leadership, says the best leaders are those who have a high level of self-awareness, who understand the effect they have on other people and who are flexible enough to change their behavior.

“What makes a leader go from good to great,” says Bethanis, “is the role of relationship builder. A good leader is also a visionary — [he or she can see] what’s coming next and what’s coming after that. In business, there is constant complexity and change, and that’s what’s getting a lot of people down.”

Leo Hindery, author of “It Takes a CEO: It’s Time To Lead with Integrity,” thinks that humility is one of the most important assets for a business leader to possess.

 “Most are intellectually curious, bright and hard-working, but many of them lack essential people skills,” Hindery says. “What I want to see more of is grace. It’s a British concept, a sense of fairness and civility and sensibility. A great CEO has roughly a dozen attributes, and greed isn’t one of them.” (See sidebar on Page 23 for more from Hindery.)

Bethanis, who consults mainly at high-tech firms in Silicon Valley, says she often deals with intense, fast-paced leaders with big egos.

“These are the crème-de-la-crème,” she says, “but they need to slow down and be less demanding. You can still have expectations and still get stuff done, but you don’t have to be a bulldozer.” She believes that people can learn to be strong leaders and that some may have “natural leadership tendencies,” but no one is naturally good at everything.

However, Kellerman is skeptical that good leadership can be instilled in a person who has no innate talent to lead.

“Just as there are born swimmers [and] born basketball players, there are born leaders,” she says. Kellerman feels that while it is possible to become a better leader, a few exceptional people are naturally gifted with leadership skills.

But Nye thinks that the term “born leader” is an exaggeration.

“It’s a myth that leaders are born and not made,” he says. “It’s possible to train people into leadership roles, but of course that doesn’t mean innate talent can’t make some difference. You can give people piano lessons and produce some decent piano players, but only a few will turn out to be a Mozart.” n

Author and journalist Chris Cobb is a senior writer at the Ottawa Citizen newspaper where he specializes in reporting on media and government communication. He is a frequent contributor to PR Tactics.



Gloomy outlook for Wall Street leadership
Leo Hindery, founder of the private New York equity firm InterMedia Partners, a former CEO of AT&T Broadband and currently an economic adviser to Barack Obama, is gloomy about the prospects for more responsible leadership at the helm of corporate America. Greed led to the Wall Street collapse, he says, and only strong political leadership willing to clamp down on “exorbitant” executive compensation will prevent it from happening again.

Corporate leaders bring companies to their knees and walk away with tens of millions of dollars in compensation,  and feel justified in doing so, Hindery says.

“You can’t justify it,” he says. “It is just greed. And in the midst of the greatest wakeup call in history, you still have guys telling Congress to ‘keep away from our compensation.’ I can’t recall a time when greed was so blatant.”

Leadership traits like humility might be growing in popularity, but there is little of it to be found on Wall Street, he adds.  — C.C.


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