During my Army officer training, I used to wonder whether being a leader was more of an art form than a learned skill. Now, twenty years later, I see the same issues and questions about leadership present themselves repeatedly, if somewhat more subtly, in the business world. I’ve concluded that leadership is a like being a quarterback — there are natural, intangible, non-replicable characteristics of some leaders, and for others it’s more learned. From what I can tell, there’s a key difference between leadership and management and no matter how well someone naturally leads, experience only improves the ability to lead. The abilities to analyze problems, communicate clearly, listen well, and instill confidence are important traits for both managers and leaders. Nearly anyone can be taught to manage, however, and at some level, leaders have to understand management if not practice it as well. All managers do not and need not lead though. In fact, in my experience, many if not most managers are not leaders. I believe leadership requires at the upper levels — political, business and military — traits that really cannot be taught. It’s either there in some form or it’s not, kinda like the ability to throw a spiral 50 yards on target.
The essential leadership attribute is the ability to cast a vision that others want to pursue. That attribute itself depends on two traits: the ability to envision something better for the group one is called to lead, and the ability to communicate and share that vision in an effective manner. President George W. Bush had vision with regard to foreign policy in the Middle East, however, he was nearly incapable to communicate and cast that vision for a majority of our fellow citizens to follow.
Leadership is a skill. By itself, it’s value neutral. George Washington, Genghis Khan, Thomas Jefferson, Lenin, Churchill, Hitler, and Reagan each were able to motivate many to pursue a vision for tomorrow. Leadership also does not guarantee success. Robert E. Lee had a vision and a powerful way of motivating his followers to commit to his vision and to make the ultimate, final sacrifice to fulfill that vision. I just finished reading Killer Angels (great book). The brief description of General Meade’s war council after the first day of battle in Gettysburg is an antithesis of leadership. Lee led his troops to a catastrophic defeat. Great terrain and strong leadership by his subordinates meant Meade won despite his pathetic leadership. Longstreet had a much better vision for the Confederacy at Gettysburg and was in fact a generation ahead of the rest of the world in understanding how technology changed the art of war, but thankfully for the Union, Longstreet could not communicate that vision well enough to get Lee to follow it.
Leadership is rare in any sphere of activity. It is too often sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. In politics, it is also often subordinated to the fickle will of the electorate. In any event, with all respect due to the sacred trust of the Office of the President, leadership is currently non-existent in our White House.
President Obama was certainly one of the best received news media candidates in modern history, and certainly of my lifetime. The product of a biracial and bi-cultural marriage, the buzz was that he would transcend race, something many Americans are eager to see — a post-race country. Early in his own campaign, then Senator Biden lauded then Senator’s presentation and demeanor. As the general campaign unfolded, candidate Obama promised a third way. Not only would he lift the nation to transcend issues of race, he would transcend partisan politics, a redundant phrase if ever there was one. Regardless, he cast a vision and he clearly could communicate well. With the worldwide economic meltdown in the final stages of the national election, Oprah and many others in and outside the media saw a strong leader, even a secular savior.
After a year and a half, it appears no one is satisfied with President Obama’s leadership. To the contrary, it appears that most are resigned to the fact he is not and likely will never be a great leader and as a result, his administration will not likely accomplish great things. To the contrary, it appears his party and thus his administration is on the verge of an electoral disaster in the upcoming midterm elections. In his essay The Unengaged President, Mark Steyn details how President Obama fails at fundamental leadership tasks.
There are some areas where it should be easy to have a vision, any vision really, that’s easy to share. The government’s role in exploring the limitless depths of the universe is one of the softballs of chief executive vision casting, or at least it should be. The age of explorers … There’s something fundamentally contagious and exciting about our insatiable curiosity. If curiosity contributed to the fall of mankind, it also is responsible for our endlessly seeking to overcome the next frontier.
Even if Obama fails at the more mundane tasks of domestic and international leadership, a new leader and a new way should be able to communicate a new vision for the new millennia — new vision for pressing outwards the boundaries of human knowledge and exploration. No chance. One of the very few government agencies that captures the imagination … Provides hope in a more interesting tomorrow, inspires fantasy and fuels the imagination of every child that has dreamed of visiting planets or floating through space … NASA. The recently disclosed Obama imprimatur on our space agency: NASA Chief: Next Frontier Better Relations With Muslim World. The ironies are too many and to painful to dwell upon. NASA as an outreach tool to some of the most oppressive regimes in the world, none of whom have a space program? How does that fit with NASA’s mission over the past 50 years? It doesn’t. Regardless of agency purpose or history, it’s also a horrid “fit” for outreach. While in early medieval times, the middle east was at the forefront of innovation and learning, the modern Islamic states have sat on the sidelines during the last two hundred years (or more) of western science and technology advances. See here, here and here. Why “reach out” with our most scientifically advanced agency? Finally, the notion is simply goofy. NASA’s mission is space. Outreach to foreign states and terrestrial people groups aren’t really what astronauts “do.” That’s what the State Department is for. In any event, hardly a compelling vision. Better no leadership than misguided leadership.
Presently, President Obama’s failure of leadership is a good thing. We do not want him assisting us with charging uphill at the center of the line in Gettysburg. There are enough really troubling things going on in this Country — a liberal Congress that without strong liberal leadership is bankrupting the country with out of control spending; federal district court judges cavalierly overturning well grounded electoral results on highly charged public policy issues (Arizona, California), Muslims building a $100 million mosque on the location where fundamentalist Muslims destroyed the largest symbol of western capitalism (which the Islamic states reject). It can always be worse and it would be worse, much worse, if Obama was a strong leader. He’s clearly a political elite, hardcore 1960s liberal. We should give thanks and praise that as such, he has turned out to be a bit of dud on the leadership front. It could be much worse.