Great and Good Leadership

The first part of The Leaders Workout is identifying the ideal form of leadership.

What do we mean by leadership?

Coming up with an answer can be difficult. James MacGregor Burns, historian and presidential biographer, once called leadership “one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.”

The late Warren Bennis, one of the pioneers of leadership studies, seconds Burns’ observation that leadership has been well observed but not easily understood:

“Decades of academic analysis have given us more than 350 definitions of leadership. Literally, thousands of empirical investigations of leaders have been conducted in the last 75 years alone, but no clear and unequivocal understanding exists as to what distinguishes leaders from non-leaders and what distinguishes effective leaders from ineffective leaders.” – Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus

So you are not alone if you are a bit perplexed on what leadership is. It’s always been a contentious topic in business, politics and society at large. And when there is a crisis there’s always a cry for leadership, a hunger and craving for someone to get leadership right.

At The Leaders Workout we believe the ideal leader strives to be Great (extra-ordinary achievement through competence and mastering change) and Good (living a virtuous life through character). It is this combination that attracts followers, inspires others and leads to the accomplishment of a worthy mission.

Let’s see how we came up with our concept of leadership.

As I (Tom) began my transition to the business world I learned there were a number of definitions of leadership frequently used by business people, coaches and academics. There was transformational vs transactional leadership, situational leadership, charismatic leadership, leadership traits, the moral leader, the servant leader, male vs female leadership styles and many others.

There are a lot of insights and partial truths to all these definitions. But as I reflected on my leadership experience at West Point and the military I realized something was missing.

The wisdom of the world’s greatest leadership training organization

Here is an interesting conversation that happened several years ago …

“Three years ago, in the midst of the Internet bubble, our dinner party at the landmark Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan listened raptly to Peter Drucker, the Father of Modern Management, and Jack Welch, the then widely admired CEO of America’s most admired company. The question before us: Who does the best job developing leaders?

To my surprise, the usual suspects so often cited for finding the training leaders didn’t figure – not the Harvard Business School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey & Company, or General Electric, or IBM or Procter & Gamble. The enthusiastic choice of both of these management legends was the United States military.” – Richard E. Cavanagh, from the Forward of the book “Be, Know, Do – Leadership the Army Way

Having begun my career in the military, of course I am biased. But when the world’s foremost management thinker and one of the greatest CEO’s talk about leadership development we should listen. That exchange that I read led me to reflect on the actual definition of leadership I was taught in the military:

Leadership is the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization. ~ Army Leadership Doctrine (ADRP 6-22)

Reflecting on this insight of leadership wisdom, I saw there were three important parts of leadership in the US Army’s definition:

  • influence: providing inspiration and direction through a leader’s character
  • accomplishing the mission: through a leaders’ competence
  • improving the organization: through a leader’s ability to guide and direct growth through change

Great and Good - Megalos kai Kalos

“They’re only truly great who are truly good.” – George Chapman, 1559-1634, English dramatist, translator, and poet; translator of Homer

We can further simplify the military’s definition of ideal leadership: great achievement (competence and change) and good morals (character).

I discovered that this simplified leadership definition – great and good – was actually an ideal started by the Greeks and a recurring notion used to describe leaders past and present.

The Greeks used the epithet, megalos kai kalos – great and good – to describe the ideal leader.

When the famous 19th century romantic English poet Lord Bryron died participating in the Hellenic struggle for independence begun in 1821, here is how the Greeks remembered him:

“In Greece he is still revered as no other foreigner, and as very few Greeks, and like a Homeric hero he is accorded an honorific standard epithet, megalos kai kalos, a great and good man.” – David Brewer

Here is Frederick Douglas’ dedication to a monument honoring Lincoln in 1876:

“..there is little necessity on this occasion to speak at length and critically of this great and good man [my italics], and high mission in the world.”

In the area of statesmanship we see the observation of the character and conduct of the late UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold;

“The conviction when one has finished [Markings, Hammarskjold’s journal] is that one has had the privilege of being in contact with a great, good and lovable man” – WH Auden

Even when these words Great and Good are not used we still see the impact of the concept. Here is how the author and sports journalist Ralph Wiley summarized the life of the baseball legend Jackie Robinson:

“Jackie Robinson’s life was built around service to an idea, ideal, or a cause. He was always at the service of something or someone: UCLA, the US Army, the Dodgers, the Republican Party, Branch Rickey, the NAACP. He was a champion that way to all people, not just blacks. Very few in history ever have had that.”

When we read that Jackie Robinson was a champion in selfless service of an ideal, or cause, we are really saying he was Great and Good.

In his book Good to Great Jim Collins highlights the criteria professional competence (Great) and personal excellence (Good) need to lead a good company to a great one:

“We were surprised, shocked really, to discover the type of leadership required for turning a good company into a great one. Compared to high-profile leaders with big personalities who make headlines and become celebrities the good-to-great leaders seem to come from Mars. Self-effacing, quite, reserved, even shy – these leaders are a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. They are more like Lincoln and Socrates than Patton or Caesar.”

Greatness is about what we make happen. Goodness is how we make things happen.

Greatness is about doing. Goodness is about being.

To get Great results, you need leaders with Good character.

Check out the blog posts below for more insight on Great and Good leadership.

The Paradox of Character

The Two Core Character Traits that Determine how we Influence Others
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Classic Strategic Theory to Modern Business Practice

How do we apply classical strategic ideas into modern practice?
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Great and Good, part 3

Mastering the Tensions and Paradoxes of Leadership
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