Ethics Moment: When it comes to leadership, one size does not fit all

February 2, 2012

Peter Drucker once suggested that the true quality of leadership cannot be measured by eloquence, but rather by effectiveness. In general I agree, but the question remains: How do individual leaders achieve effectiveness?

Currently, Amazon.com lists more than 49,000 books with the word “leadership” in the title. All of them, one way or another, are trying to define and describe what effective leadership is about.

The truth is leadership cannot be easily defined, and, in fact, there is no universally agreed upon definition of great leadership. In fact, great leaders come in many guises, with mixed qualities, and possessing different skills, talents, and temperaments. The reality is that the qualities of a successful military leader may be inappropriate in times of peace. The qualities of a hard driving, Mike Ditka-type football coach may, in fact, be counterproductive in a corporate boardroom. Sometimes, leadership requires an outgoing, socially energizing, risk-taking extrovert. And at other times, the situation calls for a more deliberative, cautious, patient form of leadership.

In his recent book, A First-Rate Madness, Nassir Ghaemi argues that although there are a number of skills that are elemental to the leadership equation ---- intelligence, diligence, energy ---- in the end, the leader we need is, in, part dependent upon the particular circumstances facing the group being led, be it a nation, a company, a football team, etc.

For Ghaemi, it’s all about fit. In good, high growth times we want a Bill Clinton type leading us. We want an extrovert, a cheerleader, a crowd pleaser. We want a leader who exudes confidence, believes in himself/herself and believes in us. In troubling times, in time of reassessment, transition and introspection, we need a more introverted type of leadership. We need a person of reflection, judgment and caution. We need a careful risk-taker who listens to others, thinks things through carefully, and is more concerned about doing the right thing rather than being liked or loved by those being led. 

For Ghaemi, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the right President at the right time because fighting polio made him tough. He was resilient. He was not afraid of facing long odds. He knew victory was not possible without concerted effort. For Ghaemi, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were empathetic to the needs and sufferings of others because they too had suffered and understood the pain of prejudice and rejection.

For Ghaemi, Churchill was England’s “man of the hour,” because he was a realist, a historian, and a man of war. We understood that the price of victory was “blood, sweat, and tears.” He understood, before the world understood, that Hitler was not just England’s enemy, but the enemy of civilization itself.

And, yes it can be argued that perhaps “taciturn” Calvin Coolidge was the exact President we needed at the time because of his commitment to the belief that: “The business of America is business.”

Al Gini is a professor of business ethics and chair of the department of management at Loyola University Chicago. He is also the co-founder and associate editor of Business Ethics Quarterly, and the author of several books, including My Job, My Self and Seeking the Truth of Things: Confessions of a (catholic) Philosopher.

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