What characteristics would you say are the most important when choosing a company CEO or the leader of a country?
—Simplicio D. Victoria, Los Angeles
If only you had asked just the first part of your question. Then we would have an easier time answering. Business leadership is something we’ve been discussing in this column for two years. But presidential leadership—that’s another matter.
Or it is? When your email arrived, our immediate thought was that business CEOs and national leaders operate in worlds where the stakes, rules and values are quite different. But as we took a harder look at our six key business leadership characteristics, our thinking changed. And, while we would never claim to have special insight into political leadership, we have come to believe there is more overlap than not between running a company and running the country.
Take authenticity, the foremost quality every business leader must possess. It’s equally crucial for the leader of a country, as well as of a business—and for a similar reason: Trust. When a president or prime minister is trying to promote a major initiative or lead through a crisis, you can’t have the nation embroiled in a debate about his or her sincerity.
When Hillary Clinton’s eyes misted over before the New Hampshire primary, voters and pundits all over the US were fixated for days on whether her tears were genuine. Without doubt, every candidate’s “realness” will be similarly scrutinized before the US elections on 4 November. But a sitting president should be miles past such doubt. People may disagree with him or her on the merits, but never on the motives.
Having “the vision thing”, as it has come to be known, is the next universal leadership characteristic. Business leaders can improvise an organization’s direction in fast-changing markets. But ultimately, a clearly conceived, inspirational mission is critical for real progress, and the same goes for a political leader.
Additionally, as in business, having a national vision doesn’t mean announcing: “Here’s where we’re going.” It means making the case until tonsils bleed, with a story that says: “Here’s how our destination will make life better for our country as a whole and for you personally.”
An innate ability to hire great people is the third characteristic that both CEOs and political leaders can’t live without. And not just hiring them, but properly utilizing them—challenging them for new ideas and deeper insights. Now, this skill is straightforward enough in business, where leaders employ their direct reports, and thus have the clout to remove incompetents and resisters. But, political leaders face a more complicated scenario. They appoint direct reports who inherit staff who may or may not support the administration’s agenda. Presidents and prime ministers, then, require an extra hiring competency. They have to be able to select appointees who can engage and motivate reluctant teams. Further, political leaders need the courage and discipline to be able to swiftly dispatch appointees who don’t.
Resilience comes fourth. It is the capacity to bounce back after defeat without feeling, well, defeated. Look, CEOs get the wind knocked out of them all the time; national leaders more so. The renowned historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has written that the best American presidents have all been able to learn from their mistakes. We would say that’s resilience at its best. Every time you fail, you get back on the horse a changed person—in a word, wiser.
Fifth, effective CEOs have the uncanny ability to see around corners. Such a skill is perhaps even more important for a political leader, given the world we live in. But we’re not just thinking of homeland security. Many domestic issues develop into national crises over long periods of time.
Granted, CEOs who can see around corners have an advantage; they can act quickly. For politicians, seeing around corners means even something more: galvanizing bipartisan support to the same end. That’s harder by an order of magnitude.
And finally, like any effective CEO, a political leader must be able to execute—get things done. It doesn't particularly matter if a leader makes action occur himself or through others. All that matters is that promises get kept and plans see their completion, be it passing a piece of legislation or managing a crisis, like a war, riots or a hurricane.
Look, when voters go to the polls, we realize most of them vote along party lines. But very often, personality and style—the so-called likeability factor—also come into play. We would add leadership to that list, as well. Its characteristics are universal—and unmistakable.
©2008/by NYT syndicate
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Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Campaign readers can email them questions at email@example.com. Please include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.