What Is True Leadership?

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Which ingredients make an effective leader? And what makes some leaders take tragic courses for themselves and their fellowmen?

Winston Churchill raising hat - What Is True Leadership?
Winston Churchill had many exceptional leadership qualities.

Source: Clipart.com

Prime Minister Winston Churchill, addressing the House of Commons on May 13, 1940, soberly described the Nazi threat to Britain: "I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: 'I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war by sea, land and air with all our might and with all the strength God can give us . . . That is our policy. You ask what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory-victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror-victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival" (William Manchester, The Caged Lion , Michael Joseph, London, 1988, pp. 682-683).

Historians have rightly acknowledged the leadership qualities of Winston Churchill. However, Sir Winston didn't become a great leader overnight. Churchill's leadership, like that of many great leaders, was forged in the fires of life's vagaries-great ambition occasionally set back, risky decisions gone awry and jealousy from political opponents.

Luck and coincidence also play their roles in providing an aspiring leader the opportunity to guide willing followers to success. But great leadership isn't easy or cheap. Of himself and his call to lead his country, Churchill said: "I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial" ( The Gathering Storm , Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1948, p. 38.).

Saga of setbacks and successes

Although Winston Churchill descended from the first duke of Marlborough, his path to greatness was neither smooth nor simple. He attempted entrance to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, but failed twice before enrolling.

He graduated from Sandhurst in 1894 and while on leave in 1895 served as a military observer and correspondent with the Spanish forces fighting guerrillas in Cuba. In 1898 he took part at Omdurman, on the Nile, in one of the last cavalry battles, a long, thin red line of mounted men against hordes of dervishes.

At the outbreak of the South African War in 1899, he served as a news correspondent and within a month of his arrival was captured by the Boers. While in prison in Pretoria, Churchill effected a dramatic escape and returned to the front in Natal. This made him famous overnight and paved the way for him to set out on a successful lecture tour of the United States and shortly thereafter gain a seat in Parliament.

Churchill began as a member of the Conservative Party but became a Liberal member of Parliament because of his sympathies for the Boer cause. He served as president of the board of trade (1908-1910), home secretary (1910-1911) and first lord of the admiralty (1911-1915).

However, ill-conceived decisions and setbacks in the campaign of the Dardanelles (1915) led to Churchill's dismissal as first lord of the admiralty. In his own words, he was "ruined for the time being in 1915 over the Dardanelles, and a supreme enterprise was cast away, through my trying to carry out a major and cardinal operation from a subordinate position. Men are ill-advised to try such ventures. This lesson had sunk into my nature" (Churchill, The Second World War , Vol. 2, p. 15).

This failure seemed at the time to signal the death of his political career, but he rebounded and became secretary of state for war and air (1919-1921). He took a leading part in establishing the new Arab states in the Middle East while supporting the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine.

He lost his seat in Parliament in the 1922 elections. He returned to the Conservative Party just in time to take up a new post as chancellor of the exchequer (1924-1929). Churchill wandered in the political wilderness between 1929 and 1939. It was during these years that he wrote his major works: Marlborough: A History of the English-Speaking Peoples; My Early Life; Thoughts and Adventures; and Great Contemporaries . In 1939, at the outset of war, Churchill was recalled as first lord of the admiralty.

Other great leaders

Others who have made their indelible marks on history include general and later American president Dwight D. Eisenhower, a leader who excelled as a builder of coalitions; General George Patton, a hard-driving, brilliant field commander; General Douglas MacArthur, a brilliant strategist; and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, a gifted but mercurial leader whom Churchill described as "in defeat, indomitable; in victory, insufferable" (William Safire, Lend Me Your Ears , W.W. Norton Co., New York, 1992, p. 132).

Conversely, President Harry Truman was characterized by The New York Times as being "without experience, without knowledge, without prestige." Yet in 1952, at the end of Truman's presidency, Churchill paid him a high compliment: "I must confess, sir, I held you in very low regard. I loathed your taking the place of Franklin Roosevelt. I misjudged you badly. Since that time, you more than any other man have saved Western civilization" (Safire, p. 43). Time and circumstance have a way of forging leadership qualities in men and women.

Leaders gone wrong

History has given us leaders, both famous and infamous. What made the heroes great and the despots bad?

Leaders can be effective but dangerous. Adolf Hitler was a brilliant leader who misused his talents. He marshaled treachery and intimidation to dupe the German people, exterminate much of Europe's Jewish population and devastate neighboring nations. Hitler could sense others' weaknesses and relished their exploitation. He understood that most leaders and their peoples are reluctant to undertake a truly violent exchange, and he knew how to alternate terror with hints of accommodation to heighten that reluctance.

Idi Amin, Ugandan president from 1971 to 1979, killed some 100,000 of his countrymen. His treachery eventually alienated his allies, who, in turn, forced him to flee for his own life. The sometime cannibal resorted to terrorist tactics and murderous abuse to control his countrymen.

Simultaneously feared and hated, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin bears responsibility for the deaths of 10 to 15 million Soviet peasants between 1929 and 1933.

These examples, and many others from the dark pages of history, illustrate that great leadership is more than just satisfying one's personal desires. Morality and right values are also necessary. Let's notice a few characteristics of great leaders.

Functions of great leadership

One of the best ways to define great leadership is through the roles played by effective leaders. This takes us to the heart of the matter, because, as the Bible says, "you will know them by their fruits" (Matthew:7:16). Let's notice some characteristics of great leaders:

  • Vision and goals. Perhaps the most important task of any leader is to gain vision and to provide that vision to his followers. From this vision flow the goals of the leader and the group.

President Ronald Reagan was a master at projecting a vision for his fellow Americans. He was so adept at elucidating his ideas for the country that ideological opponents were found wanting by the electorate. They could not supplant his well-delivered imagery with a satisfactory alternative.

This leadership role helped Reagan's listeners share his vision- that hard work, moral living and personal responsibility would reap the fruits of the American Dream. Reagan's goals flowed from his hopeful vision.

You've likely heard the old saying that, if you don't know where you're going, you'll probably wind up somewhere else. Vision shows us the purpose for living, and a goal gives direction to that vision. Together they shore up an optimistic belief in our future.

Ends and means

  • Ethics and credibility. A leader's actions are governed by his ethics, but a leader's credibility depends on how he is viewed by other people.

Niccolò Machiavelli, the 16th-century philosopher, advised that leaders should, when necessary, resort to lies and hypocrisy to accomplish their ends (John Gardner, On Leadership , Free Press, New York, 1993, p. 17).

History reveals that approach to be a poor substitute for good leadership. Good leaders must show themselves ethical in their words and actions if they are to develop trust and credibility in their followers.

Ancient orators, philosophers and writers taught the virtues of ethics and credibility. Aristotle, for example, spoke of the three artistic means of persuasion at the disposal of the public speaker, one of which was ethos, or the speaker's ethics, which is a function of his character. Aristotle saw this as an essential ingredient in persuading audiences.

Quintilian said, "He who would have all men trust his judgment as to what is expedient and honorable, should possess and be regarded as possessing genuine wisdom and excellence of character" ( Institutio Oratoria , III, viii, 13).

  • Respect and ability to teach. Respect and the ability to teach leadership are qualities people expect in a great leader. Respect for a leader motivates his constituents to action. Great leaders effectively teach and can help others develop leadership.

Churchill was respected by his countrymen during the critical years of World War II. Had he not earned their respect, they would not have followed him. He instilled hope in his countrymen when there was little hope to be found. The news of Hitler's victories on other fronts, the incessant bombings of London, the fearful sounds of V-2 rockets and the lack of food and weapons all contributed to potentially overwhelming depression and hopelessness.

But Churchill was not one to be intimidated. His dominant qualities were courage-he seemed never to lack faith-and imagination. He possessed a powerful, original and fertile intellect. He was intensely loyal and magnanimous and exhibited an affectionate nature with a mischievous humor. He learned oratory the hard way, became its master and evoked a natural wit. As much as anything, Churchill was a man of action. He was a charming, ebullient and endearing genius.

Churchill's credibility and determination were evident in his famous speech to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940: "We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

The British knew his past: his bulldog persistence, fearlessness in combat, hopeful speeches. These created a readiness in them and a willingness to follow his lead in their darkest days.

  • Understanding and wisdom. An understanding of human nature and human needs separates the best leaders from the only average. "Leaders can accomplish a great deal if they understand the needs of their constituents. There are, in any population, enormous energies to be tapped by those who understand how to reach them" (Gardner, p. 184).

Wisdom is the ability to do the right thing at the right time. Churchill could read the signs of his times, and he could read people. When, early in his political career, he uncovered an opportunity to better serve his people, he shifted parties from the Conservative, enabling him to serve within a long-lived Liberal government (1906-1918).

A wise person recognizes the value of humility. As Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux put it, "The wisest man is generally he who thinks himself the least so." Mahatma Gandhi thought it "unwise to be too sure of one's own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err."

Humility begets wisdom, plowing the fertile ground in which wisdom can grow and bear fruit. The best leaders are the understanding and wise, those who realize the complexities of human thought and experience.

The wisest leaders often become models for later leaders. George Washington is still thought of as the father of his country. Abraham Lincoln became an American symbol of equality and freedom. Churchill's indomitable nature symbolized the tenacious English outlook. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, de Gaulle and Einstein are all icons among their constituents.

Considering the great leaders of the past, the question remains: Whatever happened to the leadership of days gone by? Further, what kind of leadership can we look forward to in the future?

Look forward to superior leadership

Ronald Reagan believed great leadership existed in the ordinary person: "Those who say that we're in a time when there are no heroes, they just don't know where to look. You can see heroes every day. I am addressing the heroes of whom I speak" (Walter Fisher, Human Communication as Narration, University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 1989, pp. 154-155). The former American president realized that good leadership is drawn from the experiences of ethical people, whether they are famous or ordinary.

Your Bible also speaks of leadership-not just good or great leadership, but superior leadership.

According to the Bible, the greatest leader who ever lived was a man named Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:9). His approach to leadership was simple: to give His life as a sacrifice for the whole of mankind. "God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans:5:7-8). God sent His Son "that the world through Him might be saved" (John:3:17).

Jesus Christ showed remarkable vision at the most critical time of His physical life. He knew why He was to die; He was to lay down His life for all mankind. He kept that vision always before Him, even while He was hanging from the stake. Jesus knew "that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled" (John:19:28). He had accomplished His great goal.

Jesus' ethics were exemplary; His credibility, among those who had witnessed His life and resurrection, was unquestioned: "Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth; who when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously" (1 Peter:2:22-23).

Because of the respect commanded by Jesus-His life and teachings-people valued His advice and examples. Reports "went around concerning Him all the more; and great multitudes came together to hear . . ." (Luke:5:15).

Finally, Jesus exercised great understanding and wisdom, yet was perfectly humble. He "made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross" (Philippians 2:7-8). Jesus Christ set the example of a truly extraordinary leadership.

Believe it or not, human beings can become the kind of leader Jesus Christ was. As explained in your Bible, Christ promises everlasting life to any who will follow His example of personal, unselfish and sacrificing leadership. "He who holds his life dear, is destroying it; and he who makes his life of no account in this world shall keep it . . ." (John:12:25, Weymouth New Testament). "If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor" (verse 26).

We just read, in the Gospel of John, of the greatest single mark of superior leadership. The Architect of human life designed us to grow into exceptional leaders of mankind. He tells those who would follow Him: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave-just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matthew:20:25-28).

In times of crises, the world often has seen great leadership. But we now approach a time in history when humanity will need not just great leadership, but leadership above any that has come before (Matthew:24:21)-leadership that will arise from personal sacrifice based on long-range vision, credibility, respect for others and divine wisdom. You can be such a leader. GN

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