by Don LeDuc*
Before you read further, I want
you to make a list of great leaders. Then,
think about the qualities that led to their selection.
After you’ve read this, review your list and your thoughts.
It’s quite a compelling exercise.
To prepare for this assignment, I
read a number of the earlier articles in the Symposium series. They
contain wisdom, insight, and good advice about the many roles, responsibilities,
and pitfalls of being a dean. Their
content is of great value to those who are or think they might like to be deans.
But I was surprised that few were
about the nature of leadership itself. Above
all else, the Dean is the leader at nearly all law schools.
Certainly, the Dean should be, although because most law schools are in
university structures, there are inherent limitations on decanal discretion that
constrain the Dean’s ability to lead effectively.
Given the many excellent Symposium
essays that set forth various aspects of the Dean as academic leader, I thought
a more abstract treatment of leadership might provide a different perspective.
My premise is that leadership in legal education ought to be pretty much
the same as leadership in any other context. I address leadership as a concept,
and I comment based upon what I have read, experienced, and observed in others.
I’ve tried to distill what I believe are the common and essential
characteristics of good leaders and good leadership.
So much has been written about
leadership that nearly everything that might be said about it has been said.
Worse, when one thinks about the subject, what results is mostly a string
of clichés, statements of the obvious, and platitudes, including what I write
here. My justification for adding to
the pile is that good leadership consists of simple principles that are worth
Leadership has numerous meanings
and contexts, but I’m limiting my submission to the essence of leadership.
I’m not going to talk about management, administration, talent,
position, rank, or title.
A person can be a great leader
without having great management or administrative experience or skills.
On the other hand, good managers and administrators are not necessarily
going to be good leaders, although they frequently are.
A person can be a leader
because of talent in a particular line of endeavor—a leader in this or that
field—usually meaning that the person is the best or one of the best among
peers. A person can have great
talent and not be a good leader. Conversely,
a person with little or no talent can be a great leader.
Consider the failings of baseball greats as managers or the success of
Casey Stengel, a middling ballplayer who was among the greatest managers.
Nor am I concerned with leadership
that exists solely because of position, rank, or title, such as holding elective
office, being king, or having seniority status.
History is replete with examples of poor leaders in high positions in
government, business, and politics.
My concept is that good leadership
involves the ability to institute a cohesive effort by a significant number of
others to accomplish a worthy goal. That
means that the leader identifies the objective, inspires the effort, and sees it
through to success, but does not mean that the leader must personally organize
the effort, manage it, or control the details.
We know good leadership when we
see it, even if we can’t really describe it.
Good leadership is intangible. Leadership
can be learned, but it cannot be taught. Some
are born leaders (a view not universally shared), others become good leaders
through observation, experience, effort, and opportunity.
No two leaders are alike and what works to make one person a great leader may
not work at all for another. There
is no leadership mold into which we pour people to make them into leaders.
For most of us, the examples of
good leaders are found among presidents, generals, public figures, and coaches.
This is mainly because these are the leaders we learn about in history
books, the media, and in popular culture. As
this article has evolved, I’ve brought to mind many leaders either to use as
examples from which to generalize or to test my premises.
While our national orientation is to western civilization, some leaders
from other parts of the world serve as examples for us.
So, here are the attributes that I associate with good leadership.
Most great leaders will have these characteristics in some combination,
although each leader will possess them to a greater or lesser degree.
Vision—A great leader doesn’t just see the end, but defines the
end. Leaders define the mission,
establish the objectives, and set the agenda.
They are goal-oriented and have a game plan.
In a world beset with second-guessers, hindsight-blessed pundits, and
Monday morning quarterbacks, they have foresight and the ability to see over the
Generally, they articulate their
vision well. Consider this mission
statement, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the
goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and return him
safely to the earth.” John F.
Kennedy, Special Message to Congress,
May 25, 1961
. Or the riveting vision in these
words: “I have a dream . . . that
my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by
the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Martin Luther King, Speech at
August 28, 1963
. Sometimes the vision is found in
deeds alone. For
, the vision of President Thomas Jefferson foreseeing what the
would do to transform his new country represents perhaps the nation’s single
most important act of leadership.
Focus—Great leaders keep their organizations focused on the
mission and objectives. They sort
the wheat from the chaff. They
accept or reject that which helps or hurts the effort to fulfill the mission.
Like great hurdlers, they see the finish line, not the barriers on the
track, which they know are obstacles
that will separate them from their competitors.
They do not allow themselves to lose sight of the mission or to be
diverted by criticism or objections.
rallied troops in the Civil War by saying:
“Again I admonish you not to be turned from your stern purpose of
defending your beloved country and its free institutions by any arguments urged
by ambitious and designing men, but stand fast to the
and the old flag.” Abraham
Lincoln, Speech to the 148th
August 31, 1864
Coach Vince Lombardi, who spoke
often about leadership said, “Success demands singleness of purpose.”
General George Patton’s relentless pursuit of his objective in two
European campaigns demonstrated several important leadership qualities, while
providing a counterpoint about judgment and perspective.
Willpower—Great leaders have great will.
They insist on the mission. They
stick to it. They demand that others
do the same. They are not deterred
by nay-sayers and not deflected by setbacks.
They will not accept defeat. They
have the ability not to give in and to inspire others to do the same.
“We shall fight on the beaches. We
shall fight on the landing grounds. We
shall fight in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.
We shall never surrender.” Winston
Churchill, speech to the House of Commons about
June 4, 1940
wrote this: “The fight must go
on. The cause of liberty must not be
surrendered at the end of one or even
one hundred defeats.”
Letter to Henry Asbury, November 1858.
At the height of the Cold War, President Kennedy’s inaugural speech on
January 20, 1961 announced the national will:
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall
pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose
any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
This sense of will was summarized by a speech made by Churchill at his
old school: “Never give
in—never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty,
never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.
Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of
the enemy. Winston Churchill at
October 29, 1941
In addition to the demonstration of willpower in speech, we have examples
of willpower in leadership in the deeds and conduct of great leaders:
General George Washington’s leadership of the Continental Army in the
Revolutionary War, Abraham Lincoln’s leadership of the Union during the
Civil War, Winston Churchill’s leadership of Great Britain in the Second World
War, MacArthur’s leadership in the battle for the Pacific, Mohandas Gandhi’s
leadership to end British rule of India, and Martin Luther King’s leadership
of the civil rights movement.
Courage—All great leaders have great courage, whether moral or
physical. They are willing to engage
in self-sacrifice. They take risks.
They are willing to decide and move on. They
face the odds. They are willing to
defy convention, to absorb the criticism, and to venture where others will not
“Arm yourselves, and be ye men
of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to
perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar.”
Winston Churchill in a broadcast on
May 19, 1940
, after becoming prime minister.
Some of our great leaders
possessed great physical courage in addition to their moral courage.
Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Frederick Douglass, and
Gandhi are but a few. And this is probably the quality of Jesus Christ that is
least recognized and discussed.
Integrity—People follow great leaders because they trust them.
Great leaders operate from simple principles of right and wrong.
They are forthright, honest, and can be relied upon to mean what they say
and say what they mean. That is why
we know of President Lincoln as “Honest Abe,” why the legends grew up around
George Washington, and why Gandhi was the most trusted leader of the post-World
War II era.
Great leaders know when to speak the truth in frank and direct terms:
“Indeed I do not think we should be justified in using any but the more
somber tones and colours while our people, our Empire, and indeed the whole
English-speaking world are passing through a dark and deadly valley.”
Churchill in the House of Commons,
January 22, 1941
see the big picture. They have
insight. They see how things fit
together. They don’t dwell on
details. They have a good sense of
self and they know their own limitations, as Harry Callahan revealed as a vital
necessity in the film Dirty Harry.
Good leaders are realistic, but relentlessly positive. Leaders tend to
have a good sense of humor. They
also tend to see analogies. Perhaps
the greatest strength of President Ronald Reagan was his perspective and ability
to see what was truly important. Gandhi
had the ability to see all points of view, while retaining his integrity, focus,
Judgment—Great leaders have
great judgment. They know when to
apply the throttle and when to apply the brakes.
They know when to make course corrections, when to back away, and when to
attack. They are not only good at
making decisions, they also know when not to make decisions.
They have good timing. They
know what can be done and what cannot be done at any particular point in time.
Think of the timing of President Lincoln with the emancipation of slaves
and of his difficulty in dealing with the dilatory General McLellan, when
removal of McLellan was warranted in the military context, but not in the
political. Consider General
Eisenhower’s decisions regarding the timing and location of the invasion of
. Or President Kennedy’s decision
during the Cuban missile crisis.
Inventiveness—Great leaders are willing to try new things, to
create solutions, to find alternatives, to be flexible.
They adjust their tactics to fit conditions as they implement the
strategy. This was perhaps the
strongest attribute of Franklin Roosevelt, first in leading the nation out of
the depression and then through World War II.
recognized the need to be inventive: “The
dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.
The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise—with the
occasion. As our case is new, so we
must think anew, and act anew. We
must disent(h)rall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
Message to Congress,
December 1, 1962
Stamina—Great leaders are
willing to work hard, pick themselves up and get back in the race, to eschew the
short-term gain for the long-term victory. They
outwork their competitors. This is
the mirror image of willpower in many respects.
Much of what is said regarding the other attributes could be recast here.
and the battle plan for the Revolution (which was also very inventive)
epitomize stamina as both a tactic and attribute of leadership.
Gandhi’s non-violent leadership in
and Martin Luther King’s role in the civil rights movement were both founded
on the premise of stamina.
Perhaps the greatest speech ever given by a political leader had stamina
and willpower as its essence: “It
is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which
they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining
before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that
cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we highly
resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under
God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by
the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
November 19, 1863
Teamness—This required a new word.
I don’t mean team play. Great
leaders are more than just team players, although most were team players before
they became leaders. I mean more the
sense of team. They know that teams
are important and that teams work better than individuals in achieving big
things. Yet they know that teams
must have a leader, one who is capable of defining roles, deciding who plays
what position, and who sits on the bench.
They can get the most from the
players on the team. They tend to
see the strengths of people, not the weaknesses, to have high standards and draw
others to those standards. Review
the speeches I’ve quoted from and see how much these were designed to rally
the members of the team.
Good leaders do not hold grudges,
but do not forgive too readily. Leaders
are good listeners. They listen and
they accept the views of others. But
they do so in context and what they accept and use they do because it advances
leader must identify himself with the group, must back up the group, even at the
risk of displeasing superiors. He
must believe that the group wants from him a sense of approval.
If this feeling prevails, production, discipline, morale will be high,
and in return, you can demand the cooperation to promote the goals of the
company.” Coach Vincent Lombardi.
So now, apply this list of
attributes to the leaders you chose at the outset.
Or review historical figures, your own personal heroes, your current and
former bosses, or people you know. You’ve
now seen the list of individuals and attributes that I selected.
I did the same with others—Presidents Nixon, Clinton, and Carter, for
instance. I also tried this out on
political leaders like Colin Powell, John McCain, and Margaret Thatcher.
’s former governor’s, G. Mennen Williams, George Romney, William Milliken,
and John Engler, held up quite well when these criteria were applied to them.
One obvious limitation is that we
tend to focus on good leaders who won, not those who lost.
Being a good leader does not guarantee success.
Another problem is that we simply don’t know enough about many
individual leaders either to analyze their primary attributes or to apply the
criteria we select as important to them. My
list is simply my personal view of what characterizes good leadership and who
the good examples are. Yours will
I suggest that the criteria can be applied to academic leaders, including
deans and presidents.
* President and