Think about the following short list of people who could be considered great leaders in history. People who were effective by my working definition of effective leadership: “An effective leader is someone who has followers and gets them, through his/her leadership, to accomplish something. The more followers they have and/or the greater the accomplishment; the more effective the leader.” Some of these are more moral than others but we’ll leave out the completely immoral examples. Here’s the list:
- Martin Luther King Jr
- Walt Disney
- Bill Gates
- Winston Churchill
- Nelson Mandela
- Martin Luther
- Pope John Paul II
- Harriet Tubman
- Mother Teresa
- William Wilberforce
- Joan of Arc
Now I could list a ton more people in every context. Religious, business, countries and causes. This is just a few that came to mind right away that I think most people would say had a huge impact. They had lots of followers and accomplished real change in their context.
Obviously most of us, or more accurately probably none of us, will be on any future list like this. But I think we can learn something here about leadership from these folks. What do they have in common? What made them effective leaders?
Here might be a way to think of this; What causes a need for leadership? I ask this because part of the truth of leadership is that the context is huge. Some people become leaders because they do brave, heroic things. Some become leaders because they stand up for something that is wrong and go about fixing it. Sometimes they just have the right timing.
Bill Gates is a great example of this. As Malcom Gladwell points out in Outliers, Gates lived across the street from Washington University and starting his sophomore year of high school he started working on programming on a computer that almost no one his age could have had.
Pope John Paul II was a Polish Pope during the cold war. Really his leadership could be considered one of the key reasons Poland didn’t give up Christianity the way the rest of the eastern bloc countries did.
Winston Churchill wasn’t even very popular a lot of the time in England but he was the perfect person for the time during World War II.
Now, all of these people had to act. And in fact for many of them they acted in extraordinary ways in unprecedented times. But that is part of my point. So it takes two parts to make the list. There has to be a need for leadership to be sure. But there also has to be action on their part.
What all of these people had was vision. They had a vision for something that wasn’t yet. A vision for freedom. For religious reform. For moral reform. For political reform. For entertainment not yet thought of. For new technology.
In his book Leaders: Myth and Reality General Stanley McChrystal puts leaders into these categories: Founders, Geniuses, Zealots, Heroes, Power Brokers, and Reformers. It’s an interesting read that doesn’t just offer platitudes of leadership that most leadership books offer. His point isn’t that only those categories produce leaders but that people become leaders in different ways. The point here is that context dictates need for leadership.
As a believer I’d argue that many of these people were put in place by God at the right time. None of them by the way were perfect people. We can point out not only personal flaws but leadership flaws of everyone on that list and any list of leaders. But point about context stands.
What does this mean for us? What does it have to do with us if we want to be an effective if not historic, leader?
First we need to remember that to be a leader we need vision. Where are you going? Why are you going there? How committed are you? It seems to me that leadership always requires sacrifice. To be a great leader you will have to pay a price. All of these leaders had opposition, things to overcome and figure out. Second you have to have followers. If no one is following you, then you are not a leader.
I think leadership style is overrated. But you have to know yours and you have to know what the people you are leading need to follow you. One thing I know for sure is that a large group of people need to trust you and really they need to believe in you. There are different ways to earn that, but without it you’re not going to be effective. This is true even for immoral leaders.
Speaking of which we need to remember that being moral isn’t enough – but it’s important for us as believers. Effective leadership separated from moral leadership is dangerous. You end up leading not just yourself but a bunch of others to their demise. To tweak Peter Parker’s uncle’s quote, “With effective leadership comes great responsibility.” As a Christian we need to be leading towards Christ and His Kingdom. In the next post we’ll look at Christian leadership.