What is a Great Leader?

Kennedy vs Krushchev 1961
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There’s a perception out there that great leaders are the ones who are in charge when great things happen. For example, John F. Kennedy is widely considered to have been a “great leader” because he challenged his country and his scientific community to step up and sent a man to the moon. Using that same logic, Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev must also have been an even greater leader, as he led the Soviet Union to be the first to enter the space race that Kennedy was now chasing.

When Khrushchev first came into power, his domestic policies, designed to undo the harm of Stalin and bettering the lives of ordinary citizens, were often ineffective. His popularity was eroded by the flaws in those policies, as well as his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis and was overthrown after a fairly tense period in world history. Was he a “great leader”?

Great leadership is more than happening to be in charge when your company or government does something important. I am a firm believer that a great leader or a really bad leader could get a man on the moon, build amazing monuments, or alter the course of history, the difference is in how they do it and the human toll of their effort.

A great leader’s unique achievement is a human and social one which stems from their understanding of their fellow workers and the relationship of their individual goals to the group goal that they are carrying out. Great leadership inspires great levels of achievement by all those around them. Not so great leaders settle for conformance. Great leaders commit to using their position and power to take down the barriers to their team’s ability to execute. Not so great leaders make all the decisions, assign all the blame and take all the credit.

So why do we think leaders, such as Donald Trump, are great? I hear friends say, “He’s a great leader because he gets stuff done!” But he does it at such a massive human toll; belittling and degrading his adversaries (and all too often his former colleagues), firing staffers who challenge anything, creating animosity and hatred among his people. Can this be “great leadership”? Or are we so used to bad leadership that even someone who is an a-hole and gets stuff done is better than the dithering bureaucrats that we have come accustom to as leaders?

Perhaps the problem is how we define leadership? In today’s culture, leadership seems to be more about popularity, power, showmanship, bullying, or even wisdom. Some leaders display these traits, but they are not the basis of great leadership. Leadership is defined as marshaling people and resources to achieve a particular accomplishment or goal. But a “great leader” is one who can do so while leveraging the best from each person on their team; who inspire others to step up and create collective impact.

I have been on a lot of projects and all of them got built (well except for a couple!). Some of those projects had great leadership, but most did not, yet they still got built.

“So why do we need great leadership if we can get stuff done without it?”

Because the earth and our society can no longer afford the fallout from bad leadership. Let’s start demanding more of our leadership at all levels!

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