Perched on top a 60 meter column in a bustling square on the waterfront of Barcelona sits a magnificent statue of Christopher Columbus. With one hand clutching a map and the other pointing towards the horizon, the statue is the perfect image of a great explorer leading his fleet to the new world. History has been kind to Columbus and has bestowed on him the credit of discovering the new world. Despite this achievement, how would Christopher Columbus measure up against today’s standards for leadership excellence? After all, he failed to achieve his “mission objective” of reaching India by 10 thousand kilometers!
Through millennia, the art and science of leadership has been the subject of intense scrutiny, debate and study. As early as the 6th century BC, Lao Tzu wrote: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, they will say: we did it ourselves.” This sentiment was echoed centuries later by Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said, “leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”
There is no doubt that effective leaders have the aptitude to motivate their fellow workers and, in turn, get them to maximize their (and the organization’s) ability to achieve results. While simple in concept, translating this into reality can be a lifelong quest.
Perhaps the most important attribute that sets effective leaders apart is their astute ability to define and skillfully articulate a vision for the future. Such visions serve to coalesce efforts and galvanize resolve to achieve a common goal. However, as important as visions are, they are only statements of intent. Leaders are judged not on their intentions, but on their ability to achieve results. After all, a vision that cannot be achieved is but a hallucination.
The task of motivating people to work towards a common goal is the essence of leadership. There is general agreement that successful leaders share a set of common competencies. While details differ, there is consensus that effective leaders:
- Know themselves and actively act on their strengths and bolster their weaknesses;
- Are exceptional communicators, both as listeners who can draw from the knowledge and advice of those around them and as speakers who can articulate ideas with clarity and conviction;
- Can devise effective strategies in tune with opportunities and threats, and be able to adapt these strategies with changing circumstances; and
- Command the respect and inspire the confidence of others through demonstrated integrity and empathy.
Measured against these competencies, the story of Christopher Columbus did not have a happy ending. Flush with the success of his heroic voyage to the New World, Columbus was commissioned to establish a permanent settlement in the Indies. While his seamanship and tactical strategies made him an excellent admiral at sea, Columbus was ill suited to lead as governor of the new settlement. Ignoring his lack of experience in this new role, Columbus dismissed the council of his advisors and refused to deviate from his strategy of strict authority and ruthless control. Within a year, his mission ended in a disastrous failure amidst armed revolts from his crew and disdain by former supporters. Fifteen years after his triumphant discovery of the New World, Columbus died in relative obscurity.
The challenge of achieving results in an environment of change and uncertainty is just as real today. The need for strong, effective and ethical leadership is especially critical in our increasingly interconnected world. Partnerships, alliances and joint ventures are ever more common. Even within the halls of government we are witnessing hung parliaments, coalition governments and power sharing arrangements.
Within this reality, explicit authority can no longer masquerade as a proxy for leadership. True leadership, based on clarity of vision, effectiveness of strategy and integrity of character must prevail. It is time that we take leadership off its pedestal as a concept to be revered, and put it to work as an everyday tool to transform visions into reality.
David Waung is executive director and CEO of the Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management.