Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other. ~John F. Kennedy
US President John F. Kennedy wrote the above quote in a speech he prepared for delivery in Dallas the day of his assassination, November 22, 1963. He never got to deliver that speech.
As the US is approaching major elections there is a lot of talk in the press and among political commentators on the quality of leadership among elected officials and the political Presidential candidates. But concerns about the quality of leadership go far beyond the political stage. Leadership quality has been a hot topic in business circles for many years and recently there has been a landslide of business books devoted to the topic. In fact, Amazon has an official ranking of business books and eight of the top 20 have leadership in their title.
But just what is leadership quality? And what do we mean by a “bad” leader? It is easy to label someone as a bad leader if their style is slightly offensive, or they don’t communicate as often as we would like, or they make decisions that are not always perfect in outcome. I am concerned about the label of “bad” leader, especially when the academic experts on the subject of leadership can’t even agree on a definition of leadership in the first place.
I think we should rethink how we label leaders. Here’s my take on the subject.
There are very few really bad leaders. To me a bad leader is someone who intentionally uses their position, power and influence for their own personal gain without concern for the consequences of their decisions on others. So, obviously Adolf Hitler was a bad leader. So is Robert Mugabe and Colonel Gaddafi. Idi Amin of Uganda was definitely a bad leader, as was Papa Doc Duval of Haiti. They are (were) in the role to take what they can for themselves at the expense of their nations and others. I can definitely, and without reservation use the label “bad” leader for them, and others who follow this pattern.
But what about the majority of those in leadership positions who are trying to fulfill their obligations to their company, constituents, and citizens and yet who make mistakes, screw up from time to time, make a few wrong decisions? I don’t consider them “bad” leaders. My term would be “incomplete” leaders.
There are very few really great leaders who get it right all the time and who stand out as being worthy of admiration and emulation. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Churchill, Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Jack Welch, Alan Mulally (current CEO of Ford); all are labeled great leaders by many of us.
So that leaves the majority of us who find ourselves, by choice or circumstances, in positions of leadership. We are not bad leaders, and we are definitely not great or perfect. We are merely incomplete, yet with the potential to learn to recognize and improve on our faults, skills and knowledge gaps.
Openness to learn is the real leadership skill
The great thing about those in leadership roles is that the vast majority are open to learning in order to improve. For the past 30 years I have coached and consulted CEOs and other business leaders and I truly admire how hard they work to learn and improve their leadership skills. And the non-stop demands of the job of CEO or business leader gives them very little time for study. Much of their additional learning is done while others are sleeping or at the bars! Most read voraciously, they seek ideas and insights from others, they question themselves, they run scenarios in their heads about every upcoming decision. Most leaders are learning machines! It’s the only way to improve.
If you think you are finished, you are!
So if you are looking for a leader to support and there isn’t a Gandhi or Alan Mulally around, then find the person who displays the greatest appetite for personal and professional learning. They might be “incomplete” now, but I can assure you they are the ones who will improve the most and are firmly on the road to being a great leader.
Tight Lines . . .
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