Leadership? Has Anything Really Changed?

With the upcoming US election I thought that this article was apropos – or as the saying goes. Taken from my Thesis:


What is leadership? Is it charisma, a magnetic personality, good looks? Can leadership be measured by financial success?  Quick results?  Is it someone who gets things done? The go to guy?  While there are as many definitions to define leadership as there are leadership methods for any given situation, one thing seems to be apparent:  that leadership may be indefinable. It may be a descriptive term for a behaviour that manifests as a result of a problem or as a product of crisis:  Churchill during the Second World War, Gandhi in India, Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis or even the single parent working two jobs in an attempt to provide the necessities of life for his or her family.  Simply put, a leader is defined as a person who leads, commands or precedes a group, organization, or a country: a person who is in a position to lead (Concise Oxford English Dictionary).

While personal magnetism, charisma and persuasibility may be important attributes they can only take an individual in a position of leadership so far.  Personal attributes and personality traits, characteristics and qualities such as determination, confidence, competence, courage, resolve, integrity, ethics, loyalty, morality, purpose, persistence, vision etc would all seem to be part of a good leader’s makeup.  But who can measure themselves up to those kinds of values and standards?  It is common knowledge that Churchill had his dark side during World War Two and that Kennedy was not the symbol of morality or immune to sexual predilection during his term in office.  President Nixon was also considered a great leader but had many character flaws: “defective ethical standards, lack of commitment for accountability, his preference for seclusiveness, furtiveness and secrecy” (Janis, 1982, page 203).

Perhaps good leadership is part and parcel of many things.  Combined with sound judgment, which is synonymous with experience and training, leadership may imply hard work and solid preparation. Its soundness may be hinged upon resolve and the ability and flexibility to recognize risks, to learn from mistakes, observe, reflect, adapt and act decisively when the going gets tough.  Janis (1972), in his account of the Cuban missile crisis, notes that Kennedy’s successful leadership could be attributed in some measure to the legacy of his failure that was the Bay of Pigs operation.  The lessons learned from that experience were not lost on Kennedy and he went to great lengths to ensure that the same mistakes would not be repeated.

The leadership Kennedy displayed during the crisis was considered exemplary but it exemplified leadership built upon a strong foundation of responsible and vigilant planning and preparation, objective analysis, resolve and a knowledgeable group of advisors who were not afraid to take calculated risks and disagree with one another’s analysis of the situation.  If Kennedy and his advisors had adopted an approach that thought of the antagonists in the usual military stereotypical way it is conceivable that the military advice provided by the Joint Chiefs of Staffs would have won the day.  Fortunately, Kennedy’s strategy of coercive diplomacy emerged the winner.  It was a strategy that hinged upon role reversal – knowing thy enemy – such that necessary restraint de-escalated the situation along the lines of specific and calculated rules of engagement.

A new paradigm of thinking is in order today to address what some would call a “Crucible of Chaos” (Bennis et al) in that the world is so dynamically connected that events and occurrences that are seemingly unrelated emerge to displace old and even relatively new concepts and ways of doing business.  The new paradigm business manager must have the leadership qualities to meet these new challenges: qualities such as competence, good interpersonal relationships (gets along with people), the ability to conform to organizational governance structure and an ability to use his or her own natural style. Really! Is this but another definition of leadership qualities for globalism or is it one of management and organizational construct?  Does leadership really change?

Leaders tend to be visionary, big picture thinkers and strategists while managers lean toward tactical pragmatism and technocracy to sort things out and get things done (Dingle, 1997). No matter how complex the environment, their positions and responsibilities within an organization as complex as government will dictate what role that they should play.

New paradigm thinkers also suggest that a new paradigm of decision-making is required of leadership in today’s complex and dynamic information age: “they are adept at finding the right problem resolution package for the right situation at the right time “ (Bennis et al., 1996, page 23). This sounds too cute for words and alludes to equating leadership and decision making to the standard anthem of the information age, i.e., the right information to the right person at the right time.

Is there anything different between the fundamentals of Kennedy’s leadership and decision-making and that required of the new paradigm thinkers of today?  Has anything really changed?  When the risks are great and the consequences are serious, probably not.  But one thing remains clear: strong leadership remains synonymous with extremely hard work, be it in a geopolitical sense or planning a new business stratagem. The only thing that may have changed is the complexity of the operational environment and the situational awareness that is required of today’s  political leadership.

References provided on request.