The Nature of Leadership Revisited

My recent blog post about General Al Gray and the arrival of the second volume of the three-volume biography of General Gray by Scott Laidig (Al Gray, Marine: The Early Years 1968-1975, Vol. 2 Paperback – December 1, 2017) got me to thinking about leadership, what it is, and why it works. At the risk of repeating myself, I want to recap what I’ve written here before and adjust my thinking.

General Gray never articulated his leadership principles to me. But three things stood out: (1) accomplishing the mission was always the first priority; (2) taking care of his followers was equally important; and (3) never asking a follower to do anything or take any risks that the leader wouldn’t do or take undergirded everything he did.

The testimony of John McCain from last year in the colloquy with Bob Woodward at the Naval Institute Conference on Military and Politics led me to add one factor to my original thinking—McCain’s belief that a true leader must always do the right thing.

McCain’s dictum adds a moral dimension that I see is essential. The leader cannot succeed over time if he or she is willing to compromise his or her own ethics and those of the followers. Put differently, leadership only works to achieve goals that all agree are morally good.

I’ve wondered over the years of my long life why we fail to stress leadership in civilian work life to the same degree that we do in the military. Instead, we focus on management. It’s as if we didn’t know that management works with things while leadership works with people.

I conclude that the major reason for our failure is that leadership is monumentally difficult. It demands humility and putting the good of others—the followers—above our selfish needs. It requires passionate devotion to a cause. It downgrades competition and rivalry in favor of looking after the welfare of others. And it demands absolute devotion to moral rectitude.

So leadership is like sanctity: it demands the very best a human is capable of and fails if moral goodness is compromised. No wonder it’s so rare.

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