Successful Leadership Past and Present

“Entrepreneurs average 3.8 failures before final success. What sets the successful ones apart is their amazing persistence.” ~ Lisa M. Amos

We often talk fondly about how America is, or for many, was the best country in the world, and how things may have been better in the good old days.  In fact, that is a topic commonly mentioned in the current election cycle. In the late 1700s when the United States, a nation comprised of immigrants and Native Americans, was being formed, things may have been in some ways a bit simpler. But just as everything else, the complexities of leadership evolve and so do the ways in which we find success and demonstrate effective leadership.

At that time, a number of strong personalities – including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton – tried to influence the formation of the new nation.  Despite that list of stellar Americans, many scholars suggest that one man – George Washington – was the ideal leader for birthing the new nation. In analyzing the first president’s leadership style, the Rev. Richard C. Stazesky identified three critical characteristics of effective leadership. These characteristics included: a clear and far-reaching vision; the ability to design and sustain an organizational culture that could make the vision and ideas a reality; and the capacity to influence others to follow Washington and work together to attain the vision. “Of all the founding fathers George Washington alone demonstrated fully the threefold characteristics of a visionary leader and the intellectual and moral capacity, over a long period of time and in the course of manifold difficulties, to maintain coherency between long range ideas and goals and short term actions,” stated Rev. Stazesky.

A Toolbox of Skills for Today’s Leaders

“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”   ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

While those three characteristics are still important, the world has become much more complex than when Washington lived. Therefore, while 21st century leaders – whether they are leaders of corporations, non-profits, the military or governmental agencies – need some of the skills that our first president displayed, they also need consider their roles in different ways. For instance, a 2015 Forbes article suggested that 21st-century leaders need to have six key characteristics:

  • The capacity to embrace opportunity
  • The ability to deal with the unexpected
  • The desire to strive for excellence
  • An entrepreneurial spirit
  • The ability to maintain a generous purpose
  • A focus on using leadership to build a legacy

Some of these skills also are evident in a list of leadership competencies created by The Center for Creative Leadership. While this list is for leaders of organizational functions, many of these same competencies are needed in the top executive suite. These competencies (in order of the most important to the lowest) are:

  • Executive communication
  • Execution and results
  • Influence to inspire and motivate
  • Strategic perspective
  • Working across boundaries to create collaborative relationships
  • Engagement to motivate others
  • Understanding the enterprise based on the perspectives of different functional areas
  • Vision
  • Innovation
  • Executive presence and approachability
  • Self-awareness
  • Learning agility
  • Leading globally

While all of these leadership characteristics are important, some stand out as being critical to take organizations from good to great, according to author Jim Collins. He coined the phrase “Level 5 Leadership” to describe the level of leadership needed for organizational greatness and believes this type of leadership is the antithesis of the egocentric celebrity. The Level 5 leader consistently displays the following dimensions:

  • Level 1: Individual capability
  • Level 2: Team skills
  • Level 3: Managerial competence
  • Level 4: Traditional leadership skills
  • Level 5: An extra dimension that includes personal humility and professional will

Leadership as Part of Lifestyle

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”  ~ Charles Darwin

A story in suggests that lifestyle choices are important to professional, if not personal successes. And many of those choices are tied to the executive’s first hours of the day. These morning rituals include:

  • Waking up early
  • Drinking water instead of coffee
  • Exercising
  • Focusing on a top-priority business project
  • Working on a personal-passion project
  • Spending quality time with family
  • Connecting with their spouse or partner
  • Making the bed
  • Networking over coffee
  • Having a gratitude practice
  • Focusing on planning and strategizing
  • Checking their email for urgent messages
  • Checking the news

Another of these rituals involves meditation, which helps leaders center themselves prior to the hectic start of the work day. This practice is grounded in science since researchers have found that mindfulness changes numerous portions of brain. For instance, the anterior cingulate cortex, which is linked to self-regulation, is enhanced by meditation. Studies found that meditators exhibited self-regulation, answered questions correctly and were able to resist distraction. Meditators also had more activity in this part of the brain than people who do not have a mindfulness practice. Additionally, the brain’s hippocampus—an area responsible for long-term memory — benefits from meditation, which lowers the harmful effects of chronic stress to this region of the brain and ultimately to the body.  Researchers also have found that mindfulness improves the function of brain regions that are tied to perception, body awareness, pain tolerance, emotion regulation, introspection, complex thinking and sense of self.

Leadership Through the Eyes of Others

All of these leadership gurus offer good feedback about the characteristics necessary for a top leader in today’s world. However, leadership is as much of an art as it is a science. In that vein, noted business leader and writer Max DePree suggests the best way to identify outstanding leadership is through the eyes of others. “The signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among the followers,” he said. “Are the followers reaching their potential? Are they learning? Serving? Do they achieve the required results? Do they change with grace? Manage conflict?”

DePree’s comments take us back to the concept of influencing others and helping them reach the vision.

And based on this business leader’s insights, perhaps the ideal leaders we need in the United States today will actually have more in common with George Washington than we ever imagined.

Written by Dorian Martin

Assigned and Edited by Jennifer Buergermeister

Sources for This Sharepost: (ND). Quotes by Max DePree.”

Center for Creative Leadership. (2014). Leadership Competencies Most Important for Leading the Function.

Collins, J. (2001). The Misguided Mix-Up of Celebrity and Leadership.

Congleton, C., Hotzel, B.K., & Lazar, S.W. (2015). Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain. Harvard Business Review.

Goudreau, J. (2015). 14 Things Successful People Do First Thing in the Morning.

Liopis, G. (2015). Six Characteristics Define 21st Century Leadership.

Mandal, A. (2014). Hippocampus Functions.

Stazesky, R.C. (2000). George Washington, Genius in Leadership. The Washington Papers. The University of Virginia.