By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D.
A few weeks ago, I posted an article about four “abilities” associated with effective leadership: likeability, capability, credibility and adaptability. Over the last few weeks, it occurred to me that if I can take a little more liberty with the English language (two of the three “abilities” are not valid words, but they represent valid leadership concepts), there are three additional “abilities” possessed by successful leaders: compatibility, comfortability, and visi(on)ability.
Compatibility. Is effective leadership a function of leadership skills or leadership opportunity? Some argue that great leaders will rise to the top regardless of the situation while others suggest that great leaders emerge only when the leadership challenges demand it. Would Abraham Lincoln have been a great President had he been elected in the rather placid 1852 era rather than 1860 on the eve of America’s most challenging hour? I am convinced that, to some degree, effective leadership is a combination of both skills and opportunity: effective leaders are those who have the skills to take advantage of their unique opportunity for greatness when it is presented to them. I suspect that Franklin Roosevelt would have been a good leader no matter when he served as President of the United States, but his greatness was a result of his experience, confidence and self-assurance meeting the occasion of the Depression and World War II. On the other hand, no President ever came to the office more prepared than Herbert Hoover, but his substantial administrative skills were not compatible with the challenges of the Great Depression. Different situations require different skill sets – effective leaders are those who possess the skill sets compatible with the times and challenges they face.
Comfortability. More than four decades ago, political scientist James David Barber proposed a theory of Presidential leadership categorizing US Presidents according to their level of job activity and enjoyment. The most dangerous type, Barber argued, was the “active negative” President who always felt that he had something to prove and used the office to prove it. On the other hand, the “active positive” President, characterized by self-confidence, reasonable policy goals and an enjoyment of the job, is the best. Effective leaders are “comfortable in their own skin” and do not have to use their position to prove their worth. President Dwight Eisenhower had already saved the free world – his worth was not going to be defined by what others thought of his Presidency or by what he did or did not do in the White House. On the other hand, many felt that President Johnson’s overreach in Vietnam (and, to a lesser extent, with his Great Society) came from his desire to prove that a poor boy from the Hill Country of Texas could compete with Kennedy’s Camelot. Leaders who are comfortable with who they are will not overreach and make mistakes by trying to do too much.
Visi(on)ability. In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat reminds Alice that “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” This advice from the smiling cat is as good for leaders in our world as it was for Alice in hers. If a leader does not know where she is going, how can she expect to lead others there? Effective leaders must possess and effectively articulate a vision of the future that is compelling enough that not only will others want go there, they will be willing to work and sacrifice to bring that vision to reality. When one thinks of visionary leaders, John F. Kennedy comes to mind. In his 1961 inaugural address, Kennedy presented his vision for “a new generation” where people would “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Out of that vision grew a generation of doers and dreamers who served in the Peace Corps, taught in the Appalachian mountains and put a man on the moon by the end of decade. Leaders with visi(ion)ability inspire and transform rather than persuade and coerce, causing followers to do things they did not even think possible.
So, in honor of leadership guru Stephen Covey, I give you the Seven Abilities of Highly Effective Leaders: likeability, capability, credibility, adaptability, compatibility, comfortability and visi(ion)ibility.” Develop and use wisely!