Defining Leadership – A Slippery Slope

English: Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth Presid...

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Before reading the below, read this:

As part of a business school application, I was asked “what is leadership?”  I think I answered that unanswerable question as well as I could, despite the fact that I did not get accepted into that school.  Now I read about how companies seem to be fair-to-middling at actually picking good leaders, recognizing the key qualities inherent in finding that true leadership that they all agree is crucial to their long-term success.

It comes as no surprise to those of us who have been saddled with poor leadership that not everyone is good at identifying those qualities.  According to the CNN piece referenced above, “we focus on all the wrong things, like a candidate’s charm, their … resume or their academic credentials.”  And even the most cursory look at political contests shows that having more people involved in the decision making does nothing to improve on the likelihood of finding that truly good leader.

So what qualities, then, must a leader possess to find themselves successful not only in their field, but in leading a team?  Jeffrey Cohn, an “executive assessment expert” posits that there are seven  key attributes: Integrity, Vision, Passion, Courage, Judgment, Empathy and Emotional Intelligence.

As we head into a contentious and divisive election year, all of us, from corporate CEOs to those who work with their hands to those who don’t work at all, are going to be asked to choose a (new?) leader for our country.  And we’re not alone – Russian citizenry is expected to do the same, and may nations in the Middle East are trying their hands at this process for perhaps the first time ever.  But unlike the hiring process, selectors are limited to two, three or four candidates under the best of circumstances, not the dozens (or hundreds or thousands) of job applicants a typical hiring manager might have to sort through.

Will these same criteria work in determining the best leadership?  Can the qualities necessary for a corporate leader be applied to those of a political leader?


Leadership (Photo credit: glennharper)

Nowhere is mentioned anything about compromise, about team-building, about consensus-building.  But those of us who have watched the President try to force legislation through a Republican-dominated Congress certainly see the need for these skills in order to get anything accomplished.

Nowhere in Cohn’s list does it refer to knowledge of the issues, and balancing the needs of one group against the needs of another.  Is the Sand Tar oil pipeline from Canada good or not – it depends who you talk to.  In the end, the next leaders of this country are going to have to weigh the various issues at hand and determine what is best for the overall majority of Americans.

Of course the world of politics is less black-and-white than that of corporate America.  In the former, some large part of the population will always be upset, where as in the latter only the bottom line will determine success or failure (and that with no way to know if other approaches would have been more or less successful).

While I could easily argue that Integrity, Courage, Judgment and Empathy are key factors for political leadership, I could just as easily argue that Passion, Vision and Emotional Intelligence are equally poor for such an endeavor.

And take this beyond politics – what about other situations where Leadership is crucial?  What about the case of a classroom teacher?  Or a baseball coach?  Or an Army Sergeant?

In the end I don’t have the answers – if I did, you might see me up on the stage during one of the many debates we will be seeing in the coming months.  But Cohn does not have the answers either.  Perhaps his ideas work in the corporate world, but Leadership encompasses many definitions, and if he is proposing to make a professional determination as to what qualities lead to good leadership, he should make sure that he covers all definitions of where leadership might occur.



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