Why are we so unhappy with our leaders?

Everyone I speak with is aghast or depressed with today's self-absorbed national political leaders across the globe.  People yearn for sparkling and inspiring leaders who once lit the horizons with light and hope.  Can leadership be taught?  What are the differences between a great manager and a leader?

Carly Fiorina speaking at Stanford defined a manager as someone who sees things as they are and organizes to make operations effective and efficient.  A leader has a vision and sees things as they ought to be.  And then there are provocative leaders personified by my personal hero, Robert F. Kennedy, who "[s]ee things as they are and ask, why? I dream of things that never were, and ask, why not?"

Inspiring leaders are able to instill ardor among the people and get them to rise to the clarion call, "Follow me."  Every successful activist, the military men and women we remember across the face of history, the outstanding politician, each has been able to get the people to follow.  IDF brigadier general Gal Hirsch (Gefen Publishing House, 2020) has a new book titled Follow Me.  It is the watchword of every Israeli officer and explains why the Israeli military is so successful.

Leaders may be great managers, or they hire them.  Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, built GE from a company making light bulbs into a multinational conglomerate.  "Neutron Jack" didn't hesitate to fire employees in cost-cutting times.  Characterizations of him are not always flattering; he was hard-hearted and relentless in pushing for growth and maximizing shareholder returns.  But Welch, Hirsch, and other leaders share the commitment underpinning their success that leadership is all about managing people first and foremost.

Leaders reflecting on their careers evangelize with lists.  Welch repeatedly told young leaders to speak with candor and be insatiably curious.  Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha, lists six qualities of leaders; he also advises them to "read 500 pages a day" because a key ingredient of leadership is knowledge, and knowledge must be built over time.  It is knowledge that helps limiting mistakes.

Gen. Hirsch argues that leaders succeed by first "not making mistakes, and ... doing things right." But that requires friction; without learning, initiative, and taking calculated risks, or "there is no progress, no change."  Leaders do not commit to maintaining harmony.  Hirsch lists 18 qualities leaders must hone.

I've learned from my four decades in business and more than two decades in government that leaders instinctively know that their first task is to articulate and sell their vision to shareholders, corporate employees, or military personnel.  Keep it simple.  For Bill Gates, it is a laptop on every desk.  Hirsch makes the point that leaders must always have "one foot in the future [but it] is arduous ... one of the various prices a leader must pay."  

Hirsch offers nascent leaders 18 qualities that must be translated into skills to motivate people. And then, "Never forget to be grateful and to express your gratitude."  Hirsch movingly pays homage to his former commanding officer.  Hirsch uses verbs to introduce each of the 18 — e.g., "Find Your Inner Voice"; Cultivate, Demonstrate, Adopt, Envision, Inspire, Prepare, and so on. 

Leaders recognize the power of words.  Share prices rise and plummet on the words of CEOs.  Writes Hirsch, "The entire soul of a nation can be galvanized and set in motion by words uttered by a leader during a moving speech."  The soldier in Hirsch gets him to remind the reader that Proverbs 18:21 warns leaders, "The tongue has the power of life and death." 

The omnipresent angst, anguish, discomfort, and skepticism we feel today are exacerbated by the lack of positive leadership qualities among elected officials and those trying to unseat them.  All are more akin to what lovers are to pornography than leaders to citizens.  Except for fringe-element acolytes, who is willing to "follow me"?

There is no unity in the war on the novel coronavirus; no common faith in science and medicine.  Perhaps the cause lies in the failure of national officials to internalize Hirsch's 18th commandment to "Display Humility and Reverence."

Dr. Goldmeier was teaching international students in Tel Aviv, a research and teaching fellow at Harvard, and manager of an investment firm.  His book Healthcare Insights: Better Care, Better Business is available on Amazon.

Image: Vinoth Chandar via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

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