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Perspectives on What Makes a Great Leader

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Before reading any further, take a piece of paper and write across the top the names of two individuals known to you personally and whom you regard as leaders. See if you can explore the above qualities in them by giving them a mark out of ten for each quality. Can you think of some episode where a particular quality was exemplified? Here are a few notes on each of the generic qualities that have emerged from my own mind.


Can you think of any leader worthy of the name who lacks enthusiasm? Certainly I can’t. That is why it is top of my generic qualities list. For the Greeks, enthusiasm was a divine gift. The Greek word literally means to be possessed by a god – what we would call now to be inspired. The symptoms of an enthusiastic person are well known: a lively or strong interestfor a cause or activity, a great eagerness, an intense and sometimes even apassionate zeal for the work in hand. You can see why Shakespeare in Henry IV identifies enthusiasm as ‘the very life-blood of our enterprise’. It is thelife-blood of your enterprise too.


Hard on the heels of enthusiasm comes integrity. I referred to it in my firstlecture on leadership, ‘Leadership in History’, when I was in the sixth form atschool and since then I have never once spoken on leadership withoutmentioning integrity.

Field Marshal Lord Slim once defined integrity to me as ‘the quality whichmakes people trust you. ’ Mutual trust between the leader and the led isabsolutely vital: lose that and you have lost everything. Moreover, it is veryhard to re-establish it. As Roman historian Livy said, ‘Trust being lost, all the social intercourse of men is brought to nothing. ’Integrity, from the Latin integer, means literally wholeness: an integer is awhole number. But with reference to people it signifies the trait that comes from a loyal adherence to values or standards outside yourself, especially thetruth: it is a wholeness which stems from being true to truth. We know what itmeans when people say of a scholar or artist that he or she has integrity. They do not deceive themselves or other people. They are not manipulators. As Oliver Cromwell once wrote in a letter to a friend: ‘Subtlety may deceive you, integrity never will. ’

The guiding star of truth

In a letter written from New York in 1944, J. B. Yeats shared these thoughtswith his son, the poet W. B. Yeats: The real leader serves truth, not people, not his followers, and he cares little for authority or for theexercise of power, excepting so far as they help him to serve truth, and we follow him because we too, when your attention is directed to it, would also serve truth, that being a fundamental law of humannature – however unfaithful to it we may often be when misled by passion or self-interest.

Such leaders, continued Yeats, gain a ready audience: Their command excites no anger, since we are not brought face to face with an Ego. They and all ofus are serving a mistress the truth who really issues the orders we obey. Just why it is that people who have integrity in this sense create trust inothers I shall leave you to reflect upon at your leisure. Certainly we all knowthat a person who deliberately misleads us by telling lies sooner or laterforfeits our trust.

There are situations in life which can test your integrity, sometimes to theuttermost. A person of integrity comes through such trials, tests andtemptations. Rudyard Kipling writes of such personal moral victory in his poem If, which lightly sketches integrity in outline: If you can keep your head when all about you, Are losing theirs and blaming it on you. If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too; Toughness or demandingness and fairness, As a leader you need to be tough or demanding but fair. Leadership is notbeing popular; it is not about wanting to be liked by everyone. For leadersmake demands; they set high standards; and they will not accept anything butthe best. That isn’t always popular.

The great conductor Otto Klemperer expected the best from his players and didn’t go into raptureswhen he got it. After one performance, however, he was so pleased with the orchestra that he lookedat them and said, ‘Good!’ Overwhelmed, the musicians burst into applause. ‘Not that good, ’Klemperer said. As Confucius commented long ago, ‘The best leader is easy to serve anddifficult to please. ’ Notice that where praise is given sparingly it is valuedmore. Indeed there is an Iranian proverb that says too much praise is worsethan an insult.

Toughness is indicative of more than being demanding in terms of thecommon task. Akin to resilience and firmness, it is the quality that enablesyou to withstand tension, strain or stress. To be firm means fixed andunshakeable, and often implies deep commitment to a moral principle. Peoplelook for this particular form of strength in a leader. As an Arab proverb putsit, ‘No strength within, no respect without’. St Augustine once prayed for a‘heart of fire’ for humanity’s common purpose, a ‘heart of love’ to others, andto himself a ‘heart of steel’. All true leaders have that steel in their souls.

Personally I hate war, but it is undeniable that we have learned a great dealabout leadership by the experience of battle. Such crisis situations, where lifeand death are at stake – viewed over three thousand years and in every part ofthe world – are revealing about human nature, especially about what kind ofleadership elicits the best response. What is evident is that soldiers respondbest to leaders who are neither harsh nor soft.

The leader who liked to be liked and the commander who was nota leader. The classic description of these types of leadership comes in Xenophon’saccount of a military expedition of some 10, 000 Greek mercenary soldierswho fought on one side in a Persian civil war and then made a famous 800miles march through what is now Iraq and Turkey to freedom. Xenophon, who had studied leadership with Socrates and later wrote the world’s firstbooks on leadership, served on the campaign as a cavalry commander.

Unsurprisingly, given the influence of Socrates as a teacher, Xenophon was anacute observer of the leadership abilities of the Greek generals. Proxenus of the city of Boeotia was a very ambitious and well-educatedyoung man who joined the Greek mercenary army in Persia in 40BC. He wasin search of fame and fortune. Though without any practical militaryexperience – he had been tutored by an academic in military tactics – hesecured office through his political contacts as one of the expedition’s six generals. Xenophon, who was invited by Proxenus to join the expedition to Persia, has left us this pen portrait of his friend and companion: He was a good commander for people of a gentlemanly type, but he was not capable of impressinghis soldiers with a feeling of respect or fear for him. Indeed he showed more diffidence in front of hissoldiers than his subordinates showed in front of him, and it was obvious that he was more afraid ofbeing unpopular with his troops than his troops were afraid of disobeying his orders.

Xenophon has also left us a pen portrait of the veteran Spartan general Clearchus. In the crisis that followed the defeat of their patrons in the battle of Cunaxa outside Babylon, when the Greeks were faced with a choice between slavery or a long hazardous march through enemy-occupied territory to the Black Sea and freedom, it was to Clearchus that everyone looked – for he hadthat inner steel as well as the experience of having been in such a situationbefore. He knew what to do. Yet Xenophon describes him as a harsh man; except when an army was in a crisis no one would voluntarily choose to servewith him. In other words, he was a commander but not a leader. In the event, by an act of treachery, the Persians assassinated all the Greek generals and Xenophon, aged 26, was among the six elected by the soldiers to replace them. Needless to say, Xenophon aspired – not without some success – to be a great military leader.

Toughness and demandingness should always be expressed in the contextof fairness: a true leader has no favourites. A former Royal Navy captain putit to me in a letter like this: Make demands, but not unreasonably so. Leaders need to be even-handed in their demands onsubordinates. Those in the navy who demanded too much of their immediate subordinates – typicallyheads-of-department – generated a negative, joyless atmosphere: but those who were soft on thesepeople would lose their community’s respect. Consistency was profoundly important, not least in thehandling of discipline.

The Captain has to discipline proven offenders under naval law and regulation, knowing that theperson (unless the offence is gross) continues as an essential working member of the warship community. Sailors understand well this need for good order: harshness will disturb them, but so wil linconsistency or inappropriate leniency.

Justice or fairness is a necessary condition in all personal relations. Always honour the terms of the two-way contract that underpins any workingrelationship. Make sure that people are paid the correct amount and on time. ‘In a personal relation between persons an impersonal element isnecessarily included and subordinated. ’

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