What Are Leaders Made of?

12 April 2012


This week we’re asking the question: What Are Leaders Made of?

That depends on what you’re the leader of. After all, what do Girl Scout leaders, Army generals, corporate honchos, and Philosophy Department heads all have in common? Not much, I’d say. For example: whether you’re talking Girl Scout troops or Army troops -- an effective leader still has to have the ability to communicate and motivate. But motivating a troop of pre-teen girls to work hard and earn their badges is a lot different from motivating a troop of soldiers in the face of battle. It's easy to see how someone could be really good at the one, and bad at the other.

But why can’t both things be true? There are some skills and capacities that effective leaders tend to share -- like the ability to communicate and motivate. But what it takes to exercise those skills effectively, probably depends a lot on context. That suggests that we should distinguish between general-purpose leadership skills and context-specific leadership skills. Maybe leaders need certain general-purpose skills, no matter what the context. But context-specific skills are not necessarily transferable to different situations.

That seems plausible -- and yet having made the distinction explicit, I’m beginning to have doubts. Is there anything of real substance to say about what it takes to be a good or effective leader in general? It’s at least conceivable that there is. Take somebody who’s good at leading girl scout troops, but not so good at leading army troops. You might call that person a good girl scout leader, but you wouldn’t say that they were a good leader -- full stop -- would you?

It seems to be part of our ordinary concept of a good leader that you have to have leadership skills that don’t depend on context, that are transferable from context to context in order to count as a good leader -- full stop. A real leader is the kind of person that, given any leadership task, has a good chance of rising to the occasion. It seems pretty hard to say what it would take to make leaders like that. Are there really any people like that, anyway? Isn’t that what we’re looking for when when we ask what leaders are made of? It’s one thing to ask what it takes to make a good leader in this or that context. It’s another thing to say what it takes to make a person a good leader in any context.

We also need to distinguish between effective leaders, and wise or moral leaders. History is full of examples of highly effective leaders who were neither wise nor moral. Are we trying to figure out what effective leaders are made of, or what wise and moral leaders are made of? Does it really make sense to even try to separate out the qualities of effective leadership from the qualities that make for wise and moral leadership? The last thing we need is more foolish and immoral, so-called leaders.

And yet a leader who leads their followers into ruin, folly, or immorality is still a leader. I completely reject the directions in which Mao or Stalin or Hitler led their nations. But I can’t deny that they were highly effective, highly consequential leaders. Yet I wouldn't call any of them great leaders. Great leaders don’t lead their followers into ruin, folly, or moral darkness. Great leaders have to be both wise and moral. Calling someone a great leader is a way of endorsing or approving of their leadership. By that token, Hitler was not a great leader at all. He may have been temporarily effective. But he was ultimately a foolhardy leader who led his followers into both immorality and defeat.

But a still small voice in me says, “Not so fast.” One man’s moral darkness and folly is another man’s most cherished goal. Is it really right to build a particular moral point of view into the very idea of leadership? That’s just one of the many questions we’ll have to answer, as we try to figure out what leaders are made of with our guest, Stanford Law Professor Deborah Rhode, who has co-authored a number of books on the nature of leadership.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Comments (22)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, April 12, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

The fifth paragraph of your

The fifth paragraph of your post says much, as does the sixth---they could have been one. In any case, leadership derives from an older phrase: lead your ship. Leaders are not born to that station---they are steered into it---by parents who are fully aware of the life-long implications of training their offspring to be leaders. This goes back to the ancient goal of having your children do better than you did. Winston Churchills, John F. Kennedys and Mohandas Ghandis were not born that way. They were shaped; by parents and/or other circumstances, including an interest in making things better. Or to die trying. Many died trying. And we remember that. It is not rocket science. No, it is really so much more...

Guest's picture


Saturday, April 14, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

In ancient Sumer, the world's

In ancient Sumer, the world's first civilization, when an irrigation system needed rehabilitation or a devastated city needed rebuilding, a leader was put in charge to see the project to a timely and successful conclusion, whereupon he was dismissed. Compare the ludicrous performance of FEMA following Hurricane Katrina. Failure of leadership shows up in mundane affairs as well, from troubled corporations to troubled marriages.
The most extensive study on leadership ever, commissioned by the US Navy in the 1950s, became a motherlode of information for psychologists. It failed to identify a single trait that marked effective leadership but revived an old Greek idea that there are four distinct styles of leadership:
a. the goal of the "choleric" leader is to dominate others; he/she uses authority and any other form of legitimate power available to do so
b. the goal of the "sanguine" leader is to influence others through persuasion
c. the "phlegmatic" leader's goal is to bring everyone on side democratically; he/she is willing to sacrifice assertiveness to achieve consensus
d. the "melancholic" leader's primary goal is to stay out of trouble; he/she tends to be analytical, diplomatic and a stickler for policy and procedure.
Perhaps surprisingly, all four types have been effective and successful leaders in corporations, although each type brings weaknesses as well as strengths.
Perhaps the most overlooked arena of leadership is in marriage. Imagine the problems of a husband and wife, both of whom are "choleric" and constantly trying to dominate the other. But all of the other possible combinations has unique strengths and weaknesses as well, requiring different solutions. This seems an issue the psychologists have not yet adequately addressed,

Guest's picture


Monday, April 16, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Well, let's see, Seems to me

Well, let's see, Seems to me (after my sixty-four years, here-abouts...): leaders are 10 percent skill; 40 percent charisma' and 40 percent bullshit. The remaining 10 percent is indeterminate. John F. Kennedy had it. Winston Churchill THOUGHT he did (and given the times, that was enough, so file him under the final 40, given above...).
But the bullshit factor just keeps getting harder to sell. Barack Obama is finding this an annoying contingency. He is such a smooth, smart guy. And with so much money...ah, yes. We might assume he has nothing to lose, by losing, And,as a practical matter, he does not have anything substantive to lose, given his wealth and all. But power is about more than accumulation of wealth. It is about that all-important badge: legacy. Which is another word for vanity. Need I say more? I think not. Well, maybe just this: George W. Bush; Barack Hussein Obama; Ronald Wilson Reagan---all the same cloth,...ain't that a stitch? (heh, heh)
There is one advantage to getting old: experience---and witnessing history. Told you so.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, April 20, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

I notice that Eleanor

I notice that Eleanor Roosevelt is pictured in your post. But not FDR. I wondered about that, because, in high school, I had a teacher who found Mrs. Roosevelt, uh, offensive. He likened her to a vulture, (eeu-eeu-eeu), circling over road kill. I never really got to talk to G.C. Lakeman about his distaste for Madame Roosevelt, and he has been deceased for fifteen years or more now---my loss, I guess.
Well. Leadership looks to be about who has the most money to spend. BOB, (Barack Obama) appears to have many more dollars than the GOP's presumed contender. I did not vote for the Intellectual Blacker in 2008. I won't vote for him, or for the Moron---oops,-Mormon, challenger. They are all FOS, seems to me.
But, in the end, my vote matters not, ergo, my opinion(s) don't either. Does ANYONE really believe in western style democracy anymore? Morons might. Lots of them out there. The media is still hammering away at Whitney Houston, even today. Dick Clark is barely cold, and they are feeding off of his dead flesh, as I write this.

Guest's picture


Sunday, April 22, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

And so, how may we frame the

And so, how may we frame the altered state we call leadership? Neuman's notion about money seems accurate. But, charisma and salesmanship are clearly in the mixture. Those whom we designate as leaders are as smart, perhaps, as they need to be. But intelligence does not mean success, nor does charisma ensure lasting adoration. It is a tough sell, this leadership thing. And, it ain't for sissies. As Romney will discover. Or not.

MJA's picture


Tuesday, April 24, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

I hate lines and think I was

I hate lines and think I was born this Way.
Leaders are not followers,
And it matters not who or how many follow,
Sometimes true leaders lead no One,
And are happy walking all alone.
Following others drives me crazy!

Guest's picture


Monday, April 30, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Can someone be a leader while

Can someone be a leader while leading no one
And happily walk alone
on a path no one else has trod?
Now here is a paradox, and a riddle too.
You have done it, no doubt
And so have I
When we led our own self.
It is called self-discipline.
(Who said you had to be good to write poetry?)

Guest's picture


Friday, May 4, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

"If someone says he is a

"If someone says he is a leader, look behind him. If no one is following, then he's just a man out for a walk." (A. Lincoln, attributed).
A leader is someone who provides purpose, direction, and motivation that advances a group or organization toward a goal. And this means being able to take charge, either by designated position or by assumed role. A person who can do this is an effective leader.
To be a great leader, however, requires one more element, I think - the recognition that leadership is a servant's position. It sounds paradoxical, but it distinguishes those who lead for their own aggrandizement (Alexander, Ceasar, Napoleon) from those who served something greater than themselves (Belisarius, Wellington, Washington). It makes for a leader with the humility put him/herself aside - and only such can really be a great leader.

David Lichtenstein's picture

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