Leaders on Leadership
We expect our elected representatives to be great leaders, but what does that really mean?
By Theresa Gawlas Medoff '85
Inside her Port-au-Prince apartment for four days in September 1991, Erica Johnson-Meadows '85 dared not leave. Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide had been overthrown in a coup d’état, and the streets exploded with violence. Rebels set roadblocks afire. Guntoting men rode through the city in the back of pickup trucks, shooting people in the streets. After spending more than year as a health care worker in one of the poorest areas of the city, Johnson-Meadows had become accustomed to the poverty and desperation. But this was anarchy. “You felt like you were watching the world fall apart before your eyes,” she says.
Johnson-Meadows remained in Haiti for several more years, continuing to work in health care and later as a member of the U.N. Human Rights Mission. In 1996, she moved with the U.N. to the Balkans, another site of disarray and upheaval. “In many ways, the problems that followed the years of political unrest stemmed from leadership that went wrong,” she says. “In the Balkans, it was complex scenario, with Franjo-Tudjman, Alija Izetbegovic, and Slobodan Milosevic all in power. All of them were powerful leaders, but they were more interested in holding onto their power than in working on any kind of power sharing. Bosnia is still coming out of that dark postwar period.”
By way of contrast, as U.N. electoral observer Johnson-Meadows notes how the “charismatic, tolerant, and inspiring” leadership of Nelson Mandela averted the widely expected chaos in South Africa’s first postapartheid elections. Her experience there and with other highranking U.N. officials convinced her that effective leadership styles, while varying widely, can often mean the difference between order and chaos.
“I have worked with quiet, unassuming diplomatic types and with others who have been more the John Wayne, cigar-smoking, bombastic ‘take-no-prisoners’ types,” she says, “but each seemed to fit the mission and knew what he or she needed to do to get the U.N. mandate accomplished.”
Clearly, leadership matters today as much as it ever did. Human misery can be alleviated through leadership or exacerbated by its failure. Hurricane Katrina may well go down in history as much for the spectacularly bungled response to the disaster as for the power of the storm itself.
This past September, as the nation prepared for the 2008 presidential election season, during which the leadership potential of the candidates will be scrutinized endlessly, the University kicked off a 16-month national speaker series, “The Bucknell Forum:The Citizen & Politics inAmerica.” Inaugurated with talk by NBC’s Tim Russert, the series is bringing prominent speakers to campus to address vital topics such as leadership, citizens’ responsibilities, and the direction of our country.
For its part, Bucknell Magazine asked 10 distinguished Bucknellians each leader in his or her own right to define leadership and articulate its most important qualities. Among the commentators are two Bucknell faculty members, newspaper editor, former U.S. ambassadoratlarge, several public servants, and an associate justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
Professor of Management William Gruver asserts that leadership is not an exact science. Despite at least century of study by psychologists, sociologists, historians, and political scientists, the only generally agreedupon definition is this: Leadership is relationship between an individual and other individuals — leader and followers in which that one individual somehow causes those other individuals to take action they otherwise would not have taken.
Colby Cooper ’99, who has had bird’s-eye view of national and world leaders during career in the Office of the National Security Advisor, the White House, and the State Department, puts it even more succinctly: “To paraphrase President Eisenhower: Leadership is the art of getting people to do what you want done because they want to do it.”
Gruver encourages the students enrolled in his course “Leadership: The Theory, History, and Practice” to arrive at their own definitions of leadership by studying historical leaders such as Cleopatra, Mohandas Gandhi, and Winston Churchill, as well as current leaders from fields as diverse as business, medicine, and religion. The leadership course is intended not only to help students model their own lives and careers but also to help them decide whom to follow, for we are all “followers” in some areas of our lives.
Gruver has studied leadership close up in his own roles as an academic, professional, and public servant. He was a Navy lieutenant during the Vietnam War, general partner at Goldman Sachs, and three-term mayor of Eagles Mere, Pa. He argues that leader’s effectiveness arises from political skill (that is, interpersonal and intraorganizational skills), expertise in the field, the ability to engender trust, and good fit between leader and position.The last, he argues, is matter of luck and self-awareness: The same Jimmy Carter who failed to inspire the country as president has since emerged as powerful human rights leader.
Leadership characteristics manifest in limitless ways. For example, Mohandas Gandhi gained influence primarily because he engendered trust, while another leader might find success because he had world-class knowledge in his field and just enough political skill to effect change.
Other Bucknellians generally agree with Gruver.They further refine the concept by enumerating some essential personality traits of leader. For example, Joseph “J.D.” Smith ’67, who has designed and taught leadership programs for the Navy, emphasizes that leader must have vision and the ability to carry out that vision.
John “Jack” Troast Jr. ’79, who has experience in private industry and has served in highlevel government positions in two states, believes that leader needs to be creative, entrepreneurial, and courageous enough to take on controversial issues and challenge the status quo.
John Miller ’59, former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large on Modern Day Slavery, says leaders are “those who gather information, listen to people, have goal of where they want to go, and move people toward that goal. In the public sphere, that goal would be something important that would help people. In the private sphere, it could be helping employees or shareholders.”
Linda Green ’70, executive editor of two daily newspapers in California’s San Joaquin Valley, agrees that leaders are defined in part by their desire “to make change for the good of society.”
Like Miller and Green, Americans generally tend to assume that leaders work for the good of others. But Gruver would argue that morality does not enter into the equation. Josef Stalin was inarguably brutal man, he points out, but under his leadership, the Soviet Union was transformed from Third World feudal society into superpower.
Perceptions of good leadership are rooted in social values, says Andrea Stevenson Sanjian, associate professor and chair of the political science department. What determines good leadership, she says, may be function of society’s values and culture. “What makes good leader during war time may not work during peace time,” she says. “A Stalin might be completely acceptable leader under some circumstances, asPutin is today. Or look at Charles DeGaulle, who was great leader and led France through two crises. But while you could call his leadership ‘democratic,’ it’s probably not attractive to Americans.”
During his career in Washington, Cooper has observed the gamut of leadership styles and notes that despite differences among leaders, they share similar qualities of patriotism and passionate concern for their people.
“One of the most difficult things I’ve seen leaders do is to ask others to make sacrifice,” Cooper says. leader, particularly at the upper echelons, must be tireless, both physically and emotionally, because he or she is “on” 24 hours day, he adds. “Every word you say, every action you take, can have an effect on your work in multiple spectrums.”
Perhaps a leader’s most challenging task is leading other leaders. Cooper witnessed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at work in the February 2007 U.S.-led talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. “It’s an incredible balancing act. The U.S. is there to help guide them, to offer a shoulder to lean on, but not to impose our will.”
When he was Deputy Director of the Department of Business and Technology for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Troast had the unenviable task of getting the public and private sectors to work together on divisive issues such as regulation. He sought to convince business leaders that environmental sustainability would pay economic dividends and to make both sides realize they would achieve a better outcome if they worked together.
Leaders also must have the passion and commitment to persist until they succeed, editor Green adds. Whether he or she is working with other leaders or leading the masses, sense of humor and an ability to demonstrate lightheartedness at appropriate times helps to make leader likeable and to engender trust.
“A dash of humility doesn’t hurt either,” says Gary E. Hicks ’75, associate justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court. “If you don’t have that, your term of leadership certainly will be truncated. I don’t think you’re born with the self-confidence to lead. Most leaders continue to be self-doubters, because there’s always more to do and you can’t do it all.”
Ambassador Miller knows firsthand how international problems such as the fight against modern-day slavery require the leadership and cooperation of governments, nongovernmental organizations, businesses, communities, and individuals.
“saw my mission as nurturing 21st-century abolitionist movement, with the U.S. in the lead,” says Miller, who now teaches at George Washington University. “To have movement, you need to have lot of different people and a lot of leaders.”
Those leaders come from all walks of life, and sometimes they show up in unexpected places. They don’t always hold formal leadership positions, yet they are able to convince others to follow them in pursuit of higher purpose.
“People tend to think of leaders as those who are in the news — the bigwigs of business and politics,” Troast says, “but good leaders are found all over the place: nurse in the operating room, church leaders, those in local government or community organizations.”
Gruver, in fact, believes that more leaders can be found working outside government than in it. “Many politicians today are followers, not leaders,” he says. They act based on opinion polls, reward supporters with pork barrel projects, and fail to take stands on controversial issues. There is difference, he points out, between being a leader and holding a leadership position.
“In certain areas and at certain levels, leadership might be sputtering,” Justice Hicks admits. “But if you look at communities and industries across America, you’ll see that leadership is very much alive and very much appreciated.”
Green points to a pastor in Visalia, Calif., who led a campaign against youth gangs by persuading group of his parishioners to focus on one neighborhood around particular elementary school. They worked in the school, painted over graffiti in the neighborhood, and got to know families in the area.
“Soon the group was larger; then other church groups began helping. Now he’s organizing groups on city level and setting up citywide forums to seek solutions to problems,” Green says. “It is pie-in-the-sky stuff, but it is working because he can communicate his vision and persuade people to act.”
She notes that community activists and local political leaders tend to be more impressive in terms of what they can accomplish than national leaders. She hastens to add that it does not necessarily mean they are better leaders, just that it is easier to be more effective more quickly when operating on smaller scale and with more homogenous constituency.
“Political leaders on national scale have to appeal to lot of people to get elected. If they are too passionate, or not passionate enough, they alienate voters,” she says.
Smith, who served for 12 years on the Pensacola (Fla.) City Council, was advised to “stay local” by former city councilman who became disillusioned with politics when he made the leap to state-level government. “He told me the higher up you get, the less direct impact you have and the more you are handled by other people,” Smith recalls.
And although he decries a dearth of impressive national leadership, Gruver admits that politicians who are courageous enough to take a stand often lose their leadership positions.
While the qualities person needs to lead the country have not changed significantly over the years, the way America elects national leaders has. Gone are the days when someone like Miller could get elected to Congress by campaigning at neighborhood coffee shops. Miller recalls participating in 13 debates when he first sought office in 1984, number he said was already too much. Now presidential candidates seem to be enrolled in a debate-of-the-week club. The debates sponsored by special-interest groups are of dubious value to voters, Miller says.
Green speculates that campaigning for the next presidential election began earlier than ever as result of the jostling among states to increase their influence by holding earlier primaries. The longer season, in turn, has fueled already exorbitant campaign expenses. Candidates must spend more time fundraising, and their reliance on campaign donations increases the possibility that wealthy few will have undue influence over policy.
Smith laments the influence that Madison Avenue advertising and “dirty” campaigns now have on elections. “The change in technology and the way campaigns are run has changed for the worse how we elect leader. We’re focusing on hair and on images created by handlers instead of on real issues,” he says.
The influence of new technologies became apparent in 2004 when Howard Dean effectively used the Internet to raise funds.This go-round, YouTube can catch candidates’ unguarded moments and broadcast them to the masses, development that both allows the public to know candidates as never before and encourages voters to focus on minutiae. With little or no vetting of their sources or accuracy, blogs likewise have the power to enhance or to obscure the public debate.
“Theoretically, voters should have better opportunity to see candidates as they are, and any vehicle that provides way to get more information about candidate is good,” Green says. “However, savvy handlers use videos and blogs to build or destroy an image. In the long run, voters must evaluate what they are learning from blogs and YouTube and then decide whether it is valid information or just image building.”
At times, it can seem like the odds are stacked against voters being able to make wise, informed decisions about whom to elect. It is for that very reason that they need to be able to look behind the hype and the adroitly created images to discover what type of leader candidate would make.
Rather than base decision on one or two issues, Troast says, voters need to take hard look at candidate’s track record as leader in order to judge whether this is an effective, decisive person and to ask whether or not they trust the person.
Adds Hicks, “We have to look at the candidates’ accomplishments and to judge their level of candor and, these days, their level of courage.” And, Smith adds, “We need to ask not only ‘Are you a good leader,’ but also, ‘Where will you lead us?’”