Monday, January 7, 2013

Judging Leadership

Ronald Reagan's early leadership style.
My local coffee clutch has one member who was a US Marine. He was away from the barracks the morning of October 23, 1983 when the bomb went off killing 241 American servicemen. It is clear to me that this event is burned hard into his mind because of he has talked about it with us several times, his loss of friends and face. His words used to describe our national response are "we cut and run". He may still well desire revenge and could use the word 'hate' when speaking of Ronald Reagan.

In my family, by marriage, is a young girl of intense faith. She exclaimed to me over this past holiday how proud she was to have been alive, although she was very young, when Ronald Reagan was our leader. Her view is that his voiced principles should be his measure and not his actions; his idealism is to be cherished; but he should not be held responsible for events during his office. She is inspired to service by his example. She desires purity. She could use the word 'love' when speaking of Ronald Reagan.

Even his enemies thought Robert E. Lee a good leader.
Lincoln, in his time, was so hated that a huge chunk of  my country split off and attempted to leave it, while others rallied around him in an attempt to establish a new principled order of the future. What then do we make of Napoleon or Alexander the Great? Great leaders who succeeded wildly at the beginning and failed miserably at the end? Can we say "they are good leaders"? Other examples of lightning rods and divisive leadership can be commonly found.

It would seem that subjective views are difficult to untangle from objective ones when we view leaders. A common view among historians is that only with time and distance can we gain useful perspective. This may be self-serving to historians I fear.

I wonder what criteria then should we use to evaluate a leader's performance? How can we not cherry pick, each from their own preconceptions?

A look to scholarship will define 'leadership' as the ability to get participants in a group to focus their attention and actions on the issues that the leader considers significant. Leaders accomplish this by three means: organization, communication, and decisions. Such abstract methods can lead to measurement of leadership effectiveness. Many large organizations like corporations and non-profit institution use abstract tests in an attempt to quantify someone's ability to lead.

The Organizer
Most leaders are highly restricted in the organization they lead. Leaders of large organizations, like corporate executive officers (CEO), often do not have the ability to structure the organization they lead in the manner they desire. Existing infrastructure, boards of directors, and market demand are the true masters determining success or failure in meeting the competing needs placed on large organizations. Leaders at best can push and shove on the existing infrastructure to lead.

The Communicator
Leaders who promise they can bring us the 'shining city on the hill', who push us to have a 'new deal', or promise a 'great society' are practicing good leadership communication skills. Projecting a future vision that we, as followers, can emotionally identify with and act upon is when we are led.  Communications for a leader is about projecting an idea from the top of a hierarchy or the center of a broad cast.  They convince us of to move our diverse viewpoints toward a common, shared view.  We expect then that good leaders will communicate in a way that provides unity more than division.

The Decider
Making decisions, being 'the decider' is what executives do. Picking and choosing objects and actions based on the information at hand are how the bricks get placed in the leadership wall. A good leader not only needs to know how to pick from alternatives, but how to pick which information to go get in order to make an informed decision. This ability to find facts, evaluate opinions, and maintain the ability to doubt is more critical than picking which way to go, which action to take.

The ability to lead, and the results may not be the same thing. Leadership appear to be about 'means', while results appears to be about 'ends'. When we look for effective leadership we expect 'winners' who achieve the goals that we already desire. We want 'peace in our time' and 'an end to poverty' and 'a mule and 50 acres for every man'. These desires, goals, end-points are where we wish to go, but are on the face of them are practically unachievable. Yet when choosing leaders, we frequently have these impossible idealistic goals in mind. We want to believe so badly this new person can lead us to our promised land.

Leaders do try their best.
We would like to think we can pick our leaders based on their past performance. The past predicts the future. This may be so some of the time. Purchasing a new good or service is much like selecting a leader. Both involve evaluating opportunities of the future based on performance in the past. When you purchase something, often a practitioner of the legal profession will include language that says something like "your results may vary" or "past performance is not necessarily an indicator of future performance". Such is an individual leader. We can only hope that their experience in the past will work for us in the future.

So next time you pick a leader, whether the boss you will work for in a new job, the captain of your pickup basketball game, or the leader of the free world remember; you may want to be inspired, you may want to achieve, but the measure of the leader is purely intuitive. You will only know the quality of the leader after the fact and even then, you will be only guessing at their and your success.

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