Musings on leadership


What makes a good leader? Or a bad one, for that matter? That’s a long-standing debate that reaches back into history.* Of late I’ve been reading about and pondering the characteristics of leadership.

Some people are promoted, elected or appointed to positions of authority. This makes them leaders by definition or responsibility, but not always by capability, style or attitude. Simply being in a position of authority or having a title doesn’t necessarily mean these people have leadership qualities.

We’ve all had the experience of people who were promoted or appointed beyond their ability; people who became martinets, bullies or who lost control of the group they’re supposed to lead, either by incompetence or inability.

The Peter Principle states that “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” This can been seen in politics, too. We’ve watched many MPs, MPPs and councillors promoted to the ranks of the government, taking on important roles only to show themselves as incapable of handling the task. Not everyone is suited for the role of leader. Some people are simply best as followers, as supporters, minions, backbenchers or even as the opposition.

Leadership implies teams and followers, not just an office or title. No matter how lofty the title is, without followers a leader is just a lone person out for a walk.

leadership stylesAccording to the US Army Handbook (1973) there are three styles of leadership: Authoritarian or autocratic; Participative or democratic; Delegative or Free Reign (see the illustration on the right for a graphic description).

This may seem a mite simplistic. Other sites list more styles, often many more. For example, the site Mind Tools offers ten distinct styles:

  • Autocratic leadership.
  • Bureaucratic leadership.
  • Charismatic leadership.
  • Democratic leadership/participative leadership.
  • Laissez-faire leadership.
  • People-oriented leadership/relations-oriented leadership.
  • Servant leadership.
  • Task-oriented leadership.
  • Transactional leadership.
  • Transformational leadership.

Now while it is seldom a leader single-mindedly practices just one of these styles, and usually displays a mix of different styles that surface at different times, most leaders bend towards a particular style. Or a combination – an autocratic, bureaucratic leader, for example. There are clearly positive and negative management styles. Post-hoc and micromanagement are two examples of bad styles, for example.

In the book, The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner (fourth edition, Wiley, 2008), the authors state the “five practices of exemplary leadership.” They note that, “in performing at their personal bests, leaders…”:

  1. Model the way;
  2. Inspire a shared vision;
  3. Challenge the process
  4. Enable others to act, and
  5. Encourage the heart.

Leadership can become destructive, too. As Kouzes and Posner write,

“…an obsession with being seen as a role model can lead to being too focused on your own values and your way of doing things. It can cause you to discount others’ views and be closed to feedback. It can push you into isolation… it can also cause you to be more concerned with style than substance… a singular focus on one vision of the future can blind you to other possibilities that are just out of your sight… Far more insidious than all of these potential problems, however, is the treachery of hubris.”

They go on to say,

“Humility is the only way to resolve the conflicts and contradictions of leadership. You can avoid excessive pride only if you recognize that you’re human and need the help of others.”

Dilbert 3
Egon Zehnder (quoted in the book) wrote,

“Listen to what your colleagues have to say. They know more than you do. Have the humility to step back and correct yourself.”

Humility is, according to these and other writers, a key attribute of a good leader. I would suggest that along with humility, goes compassion. Without compassion, a leader easily becomes a tyrant.

There are a lot of online and print articles and commentaries on leadership that can provide guidance. Much of the focus in these books and articles is on business leaders and the private sector. Still, the advice or the rules are mostly equally valid: political leaders or rulers need the same advice as business leaders.

Farleigh Dickinson University published an article in its magazine with their seven laws of leadership, which I’ve edited down to this:

  1. Everyone’s time is valuable. Use other people’s time as you would use your own.
  2. No temper tantrums. If you have mastered courtesy, made it part of who and what you are, you are more than half way to being an effective leader. But, if you’re bold, courageous, dynamic and visionary with great skills and wouldn’t know courtesy from cotton candy, then you’ll never be a truly great leader.
  3. Get to the point!
  4. Be candid.
  5. Just say thank you. And mean it.
  6. Integrity is everything.
  7. If you don?t know, who does? In the end, it?s your self-discipline, your truthfulness and your excitement and commitment that people will emulate.

Similarly, here’s a list of the five rules of leadership according to Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood, authors of The Leadership Code: 5 Rules to Lead By:

  1. Leaders must invest in themselves to be personally proficient. Effective leaders manage their physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual selves well. They learn constantly. They are capable of quick, bold actions as well as great patience. They constantly deepen their insight about themselves. This is especially true in tough economic times when people look to their leaders for hope and confidence.
  2. Good leaders know how to be strategists and are able to answer the question “Where are we going?” They test their big ideas pragmatically, and they work with others to find the path from the present to the desired future.
  3. Effective leaders are executors. They ask: “How will we ensure that we reach our goal?” They understand how to make change happen, assign accountability, delegate appropriately, and make sure that teams work well together.
  4. These leaders are talent managers and engage people to get things done now and in a manner that generates intense personal, professional, and organizational loyalty. They help people bring their best to the job at hand.
  5. Finally, they are human capital developers who build the next generation. They make sure that the organization has the longer-term skills, knowledge, behaviors and attitudes for future strategic success.

Rather than simply state the values of a good leader, Kathy Holdaway, president of Leading Edge Consulting Inc., posits questions for potential leaders, including these:

  • Do you cooperate with the best in your people or do you demand from them?
  • Do you routinely work with them to bring innovation and best practices to your organization or do you push your ideas on them?
  • Are you consistent in demonstrating the principles of leadership you wish others to emulate, or do you vacillate in your own modeling?
  • Do you encourage creativity with brainstorming or are your ideas the only ones that work?
  • Do you balance caring in the choices you make that effect your organization or are you only interested in the bottom line?
  • Are you the only one capable in your company, or do you unleash capability by empowerment through equality in responsibility and authority?
  • Do you foster a collaborative working environment or does your leadership style reflect mainly “telling?”
  • Do you model integrity? What does integrity look like to you?
  • Are you able to laugh at yourself and laugh freely and openly with your leadership team?

Dilbert 2
Ed Brennan, CEO of American Airlines, lists the qualities he says every great leader needs, including:

      1. Integrity.
      2. Consistency.
      3. Willingness to admit a mistake./b]
      4. The ability to listen.
      5. Decisiveness.

There are common threads that run through all the discussions and books about leadership: integrity, compassion, cooperation, encouragement, vision, instilling passion, inspiring others. Good leaders don’t work on the details or get mired in the minutiae: they develop the minds and hearts of those around them to carry the vision forward.

Inspiration, passion, cooperation, motivation. Those are commonly seen as the requisite assets of a good leader. If you can’t inspire people, if you can’t work well with others, you’re not a leader: you’re just a manager. Or, in some cases, a bully.

More Dilbert

Warren Bennis once wrote,

Good leaders make people feel that they’re at the very heart of things, not at the periphery. Everyone feels that he or she makes a difference to the success of the organization. When that happens people feel centered and that gives their work meaning.

He also noted that leaders are not born, but rather are made.

Of course, there is no cookie-cutter template that can stamp out a good, let alone a great leader. Leaders come in all shapes and sizes and what may seem to one person a good leader can be to another a villain. And clearly it takes a lot of effort to be good at it.

Conversely, there are equal amounts of commentary on what makes a bad boss. In one article on, it lists some of the characteristics of bad bosses/leaders, including:

      • Loves brown-nosers, tattletales, and relatives who report to them.
      • Fails to communicate, and may not even have, expectations, timelines or goals.
      • Used disciplinary measures inappropriately when simple, positive communication would correct the problem.
      • Speaks loudly, rudely, one-sidedly to staff.
      • Takes credit for the successes and positive accomplishments of employees.
      • Is not qualified for the boss job by either skills or experience.
      • Will not let go of problems or mistakes.
      • Will not accept constructive feedback and suggestions for improvement.
      • Lacks integrity, breaks promises, and is dishonest.
      • Does not have the courage to deal with a difficult situation despite knowing that it is the right thing to do.
      • Causes dissension among staff members by his or her actions and comments.

In an interview with the Harvard School of Business, Barbara Kellerman, author of Bad Leadership, notes, ”

…bad leadership is as ubiquitous as it is insidious. This is not to say that bad leadership is more prevalent than good leadership, any more than we would say that bad people are greater in number than good people. But it is to argue that human nature is complex and nuanced, as prone to be revealed in shades of gray and black as in white.
 …like good leaders, bad leaders are generally characterized by traits such as intelligence, a high level of energy, a strong drive for power and achievement, decisiveness, and determination. And, initially at least, bad leaders, like their better-equipped and/or disposed counterparts, have a skill set that ranges from being good at communicating to being good at decision making.
 …seven different types of bad leadership… are: Incompetent, Rigid, Intemperate, Callous, Corrupt, Insular, and Evil… Every one of the stories told in my book points to the importance of the follower. Put simply, there is no bad leadership without bad followership.

Bad followership seems to be a central adjunct to bad leadership. Assuming, of course, a bad leader had followers at all. Yet many seem to – the cult of personality attracts all sorts of political lampreys and leeches. Just look at the followers of Donald Trump, or Doug Ford. Many bad leaders have no shortage of minions and sycophants eager to please.

Bad, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean corrupt or evil. One can be a bad, but honest leader. Bad leaders may just be incompetent in their role. And they don’t need to be autocrats to be bad leaders, either. They can be well-meaning but bumbling.

Archie Brown, author of the book, The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age, argues that strong leaders promote themselves in a way to obscure their weaknesses. But ostensibly weak leaders may actually have hidden (“inner”) strength they can call on to accomplish their goals. Reviewing the book in the Washington Post, Gordon Goldstein paraphrased Brown’s views:

Leaders who dominate their government, their party or their country’s institutional power centers are not necessarily the most effective. To the contrary, Brown asserts, many ostensibly strong leaders are linked with flawed, myopic and dangerously misguided strategies enabled by their excessive power.

And as Richard Reeves wrote in his review in The Guardian, “…Political leaders err when they come to believe too strongly in their own powers and perception.” He adds,

What [Brown] calls “redefining” leaders are those who change politics, and in particular by changing “people’s thinking on what is feasible and desirable”, he writes. They “redefine what is the political centre, rather than simply … placing themselves squarely within it”.

There is also a big difference between leaders and managers. In some cases, a bad leader is really just a bad manager. As notes, managers have subordinates, leaders have followers. But that’s not all: leaders are people-focused, managers are work-focused; leaders have a charismatic, transformational style, while managers have an authoritarian, transactional style. notes that the difference between a leader and a manager is that,

“Leadership is setting a new direction or vision for a group that they follow, i.e.: a leader is the spearhead for that new direction. Management controls or directs people/resources in a group according to principles or values that have already been established.”

So where is all of this going? Actually nowhere; sorry to disappoint you if you were waiting for a denouncement or declaration. I’m simply upgrading my yardstick by which to measure good or bad leaders and reading more, as is my wont.

Of course, I already have my notions about makes a good or bad leader, especially in municipal politics. I believe some former mayors have been good leaders, others not. I’ll leave it at that and your imagination as to what I think about our current mayor. But ask yourself: using the criteria mentioned above, does he lead, or just manage? Is he authoritarian or democratic?  Open or secretive? And what does his record from last term show us?

I expect you’ll be hearing more from me on this in a future post.

* The Chinese classic, Shujing, also known as The Book of History, is China’s oldest historical record, but more important it is also one of the world’s oldest political tracts. Written about the period of 2357-627 BCE, it predates Machiavelli by several thousand years, but both contain much that is similar: advice to reigning princes and kings on the management of their principalities and their conduct as rulers.

What sometimes amazes me is that the advice given two or more thousand years ago is still so appropriate to rulers today, be they in federal, provincial or even municipal politics. In Chinese political tracts, virtue is a common element of advice to leaders. So is the idea that the ruler is entrusted with a responsibility to the people, not merely to fulfill selfish goals or gratify his own needs. Echoing this sentiment, Winston Churchill said, “The price of greatness is responsibility.”

In the chapter titled, “Advice to the Prince of Kang,” the Duke of Zhou says to Prince Feng,

“The people are watching to see whether you will respectfully follow the example of your father, King Wen, and run state affairs in line with the teaching of virtue… you must learn and follow the wisdom of the ancient kings for the protection of the people. With your boundless virtue and wisdom, you will be able to accomplish the mandate entrusted by heaven… Carry out your responsibility with diligence. Stay away from ease and comfort… respect every stipulation of the law and proceed to govern accordingly. Be cautious. Harbour no grievance, employ no unwise strategy and take no unlawful step, all of which will adversely affect your effective rule… Exercise virtuous rule… discipline your mind and make sure that the measures you adopt conform to virtue. Be circumspect and far-sighted in your governing of the people so that they will be well settled and unable to blame and overthrow you… Bear in mind that the mandate of heaven is changeable.”

It sure is. In politics, we’re never more than a news story away from disgrace and censure. It’s a short step from popularity to dislike – or rather a short stumble. In China, rulers received a mandate from heaven, but heaven – like popularity – was fickle and the mandate easily revoked.

Machiavelli, on the other hand, suggested that the ruler – his prince – was better off if he was feared rather than loved, because men are

“… ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”

Han Fei Tzu, the third-century BCE Chinese political philosopher and author of several essays on politics, leadership and governance (including The Ten Faults), would have appreciated Machiavelli’s suggestion. However, modern management theory suggests a more cooperative and engaging style will be successful in creating a good leader.

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