April 22, 2024, Mayor's Column

As we continue in this presidential season, which feels like the theatre of the absurd, I reflected this week on what it takes to be a great leader, be it in the corporate setting, sports teams, academic arena so consequential of late or perhaps even more important the Middle School Student Council.

I must confess I am fascinated by the attributes of a statesman and wrote on the same topic some seven years ago and attribute some of my previous material in that article to today’s column as it stands the test of time.

The topic refreshed itself just this week as Peggy Noonan wrote on the same saying, “Sometimes serious national goals have to be long term. In the daily press of events we don’t think enough about the character of those we’re putting forward to represent us.” One particularly good man here, one exceptionally good woman there...that would be a good long-term project for us as citizens. Get a better class of humans to go into the business of leading us.”

The following is a compilation/distillation of some salient points that resonated for me and I thought had wide and intergenerational application of “What is a statesperson? 

Not surprisingly, honesty is the keystone as Eisenhower said, “Respect goes to a man or woman of his word. The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably honesty, integrity.  Without it, no real success is possible no matter whether it is on a football field, in an army or in an office.” 

Honesty also requires telling the hard truths even if uncomfortable for many to hear.  Winston Churchill was a master at being a pragmatist who dealt with grim realities but still had the optimism and courage to act.  After the devastating defeat at Gallipoli which resulted in over 100,000 casualties during World War I, Churchill took complete responsibility.  He had the ability to endure setbacks, face reality, and yet inspire his countrymen to a better vision.

Focusing on the political arena, a politician must extend his or her honesty and integrity to remove ideological blinkers and seek common ground as leadership is truly not about the next election, rather the next generation. 

All studies agree that a good politician stands above any specific personal views and expands to include everyone’s beliefs.

In that vein, judgements should be made with reliable and unfiltered information with the intention of good for all.   The need for power, publicity, attention or personal agendas must be left at the door.

Right after honesty and integrity is the need for excellent communication skills.  Most experts agree that a skilled communicator emulates Aristotle’s classic elements of rhetoric – reaching people through logic (logos) and what is rational, appealing through emotion (pathos) and their sense of value or ethics (ethos).

The real gift seems to be the ability to distill a message, however complex, into something that is accessible – a talent for simplicity and brevity, and the ability to convey complicated concepts in just a few phrases.  President Ronald Reagan and former GE CEO Jack Welch are considered the gold standard.

Another critical component to effective leadership is humility.  Knowing one’s area of weakness does not make one weak.   It actually allows a leader to delegate to others who have the abilities and complement rather than supplement her skill set, lay the groundwork for other’s success and then stand back and let them shine.  As Henry Ford said, “Never find fault, find the remedy.”  In essence, a good leader does not take others down in order to go up.  President John Kennedy was a master at this.

A leader is humble enough to own their mistakes, give credit to others, relate downwards as well as upwards, respect his/her colleagues and empathize with them as people.

My favorite leadership advice was from Joseph Plumeri, the Vice Chairman of First Data, in the archived New York Times article -- “Play in Traffic”.  Simply put, it means push yourself out there, participate, get involved and be curious, question everything, accept challenges outside your and your staff’s comfort zone, have boundless energy and don’t be shy about having a passion.  But in the end, also be decisive enough to make decisions, even amid some ambiguity.

Said so often but always true, lead by example.  In my small sphere, I would add have a sense of humor and the ability to laugh at yourself.  In my case, it is needed on a daily basis.

Perhaps the most profound leadership advice was articulated by Ruth Simmons, former President of Brown University.  “You have to be open and alert at every turn to the possibility that you’re about to learn the most important lesson of your life.”