What kind of leaders do we need?

Leadership used to be associated with gut instinct and my-way-or-the-highway command. Today's leaders know that they have to build teams -- and let teams build the future.

High school students huddle at a Leadership seminar at the U.S. Military Academy, west point, N.Y.

Everyone admires a leader. Their biographies are bestsellers (see “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson). Their tales are thrilling: How Ray Kroc scrubbed the uncertainty out of the hamburger joint; how Sam Walton struck a rich retail vein in rural America; how Estée Lauder’s relentless sales effort made her uncle’s skin cream a billion-dollar success. 

Scholars and fans love to devise formulas for what leaders do. We read about their seven effective habits, four keys to success, six pithy sayings, and one or two life-changing crises. But leadership isn’t a simple subject. As Professor Jodi Sandfort of the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs told Monitor correspondent Jina Moore recently, while the best leaders start with the vision thing they never neglect the follow-through. They “mobilize the resources, implement the vision, and understand the policy of it.”

If resources, implementation, and policy sound wonky, they are. Despite what the mythmakers write, leadership is not all swashbuckling and genius. If you are looking to build something that lasts – a successful organization, a prosperous business, a harmonious society – follow-through is crucial. That means meetings, deliberation, testing, revision, more meetings, and trying again.

Jina’s special report (you can read it here) – one of our quarterly Future Focus features – delves into the latest thinking on leadership in business, the nonprofit sphere, and politics. You’ll find two interesting leadership profiles in diplomat Dennis Jett and nonprofit innovator Mark Hanis. Contributor Hamilton Wende takes you inside the African Leadership Academy in South Africa, where the future of the continent may be being shaped. And presidential historian Allen Guelzo has a fascinating essay on what qualities Americans should be looking for in choosing a president. 

One of Professor Guelzo’s important points is that a good political leader is much more than a spouter of memorable sound bites and three-point plans. He or she should, among other things, love the “daily toil and mechanics of politics.” (See what I mean about swashbuckling and genius not being the key?)

It is pretty clear that the era of the old my-way-or-the-highway leader – the maverick who acts on gut instinct, barks out orders, and silences dissent – is fast fading. A 21st-century leader needs to inspire, guide, and offer attaboys to the troops, but the most important thing a leader can do is to engage a much larger group of people in a complex task. In the past, those people were called followers, and they weren’t asked for much other than loyalty to the leader. Today, we think of teams. A leader is a coach, a quarterback, a captain, but it is the team that gets things done. 

As much has been written about team-building, teamwork, dream teams, and the amazing products they have created as has been written about leadership. Google and Facebook emerged after punishing sessions of collective coding. The Edison light bulb, Ford assembly line, and U-2 spy plane came out of teams with a clear sense of mission, varied talents, and a willingness to continuously improve their product.

What makes a team succeed? The main factor seems to be the group dynamic. In other words, team members share the same values, respect one another, and enjoy what they are doing. They like having a challenge, learning from each other, and being part of something bigger than themselves. Being on a team involved in a breakthrough – whether it is developing a new technology, planning a successful event, fighting a war, or solving a difficult business problem – can be an arduous task. But arduous tasks, to paraphrase Aeneas’ motivational line to his battered team, almost certainly will one day be a joy to remember.

That’s the vision thing that modern leaders need – the ability to build a team and let the team build the future.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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