By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D.
A few weeks ago, at SLLF’s Leadership Forum, I was honored to be in the audience at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library as former US Attorney General Ed Meese described how he had immediately and unexpectedly accepted a position in the new Administration of Governor Ronald Reagan and left wondering how he would explain the impulsive decision to his wife. Reagan’s charm, passion and vision had won Meese over in their first meeting. It reminded me of the importance of “likeability” for effective leaders and set me to thinking: what other “abilities,” in addition to likeability, are associated with effective leadership?
After listening to the scholars in Simi Valley discuss the leadership of Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan (and a few others along the way), I believe that most, if not all, effective leaders possess at least four “abilities”: likeability, capability, credibility and adaptability.
Likeability. As much as anything, leadership (especially political leadership) is about relationships. Few will vote for or follow someone they don’t like. Always quick with a smile or a disarming story, Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan were easy to like – even those who opposed them on political grounds found it difficult to demonize them (think about Reagan and Tip O’Neil). Polls have shown for years that, all things being equal, voters will support candidates they like. In a similar manner, when legislators are trying to build that coalition to win a leadership post, there are only so many perks they can give out. At some point they have to rely on personal relationships to gain the support of a majority of their caucus or chamber.
Capability. While likeability is important, an outgoing personality can only get (or take) you so far. While relationships might help a person win elections (this is particularly true for legislative leaders), at some point, you have to do the job well to keep it. People liked Ronald Reagan, but that did not keep his approval rating from dipping into the 30s when unemployment hit double digits in 1982-83. Everybody liked Ike, but the recession of 1957-58 saw Democrats regain control of the US Senate and expand their control of the House. Everybody wanted to visit JFK’s Camelot until the Bay of Pigs fiasco when his support dropped dramatically, despite the wining smile, beautiful family and self-deprecating humor. Leaders have to deliver.
Credibility. Listening to the scholars discuss Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy , Reagan and others, I was struck by a third “ability” (okay “ibility” if you want to get technical) that is critical for effective leadership: Credibility. People will only support your bid for leadership if they believe you and believe in you. As scholars and politicos agreed at the Reagan Library Program, if leaders aren’t credible, they are not effective. The Berlin Wall fell because Gorbachev knew Reagan would do what he promised, a lesson learned by American air traffic controllers several years earlier. In the 1950s, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, the Little Rock Nine and the North Koreans all learned that Dwight Eisenhower backed up his words with action. Khrushchev learned the same thing about Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Effective leaders back up their words with actions.
Adaptability. Finally, effective leaders need to be adaptable, in tactics, if not in objectives. Lou Cannon spoke of Reagan’s strategic leadership, noting that while he knew what he wanted to achieve (advance the economy and restrict communism), he was constantly revising his methods to get there. Likewise, after the mistakes made in the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy adapted his approach, learned his lessons and stared Khrushchev down in Cuba. And Eisenhower’s “Middle Way” was the epitome of adaptability – negotiate, adapt, negotiate some more – until you find a way that satisfies (or close) all sides. This “ability” may be particularly important for legislative leaders who, facing one roadblock in the legislative process, may have to create a new path or process to succeed. Effective leaders have the capacity to learn from their mistakes and adapt to changing situations and demands.
As we look toward leadership of the future, it’s instructive to reflect on lessons of the past. A study of past Presidents suggests, among other traits, effective leaders must be likeable, capable, credible and adaptable.