What is the Essence of Leadership?

(From the project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things by Julian Moody and Brandy Walker)

BW: You worked mainly with leaders—presidents, executives, managers in the business world—and you also served In World War II, so you know something about leadership. Based on your experience, did you find that people become leaders rather than choose to become leaders?

JM: Yes, I would say in many, many cases the person evolved as a leader. It’s not something that he planned and worked towards necessarily. However, there are also many people who want to get into a high position in the company and so they do their work exceptionally well, they build good relationships and let’s say that some day, they’re the president. It could be that they have natural leadership abilities, but they did not set out to be good leaders. They set out to be a successful president. But in the process, they also became good leaders. And then, there’s a lot of other people that have a great need for power, big egos who push for being, let’s say the president, and they don’t have the ability, they don’t have the leadership qualities necessary. In the first two examples, the focus is on the position and the subsequent leadership may be healthy or not healthy. And then there is another type where the focus is on leadership, where they are very interested in leadership, they know what it is, they believe in it, maybe they were involved in it in the military, and they try to build good leadership in whatever position they happen to be in.

BW: You obviously make a distinction between leadership and position. Many people think or assume they are both one and the same.

JM: That’s a common misconception or ambiguity. It’s important to clarify that a position is not the same thing as leadership. A position entails leadership, but a person in a position may not exercise leadership. The possibility or potential for leadership comes with every circumstance or situation regardless of position. I’m thinking of a lower level person at Santa Barbara Bank and Trust who came forward and pointed out a particular problem. There were bigger, more far-reaching implications to this problem, so it took a lot of courage to do this. And that is an example of leadership. I could go on and on—there are many examples of leadership—all situational. It would take forever to go through the exhaustive list of examples I’ve seen and observed in my work alone. And so for the big point I am trying to make here—leadership is not so much about a position. It’s something that is very situational and you can display leadership in whatever position. We all have opportunities for leadership regardless of position.

BW: Many people equate or associate leadership with ambition.

JM: That’s a common misconception—that leadership is something that you strive towards, although many people will seek out leadership positions for power, status, that sort of thing. True leadership doesn’t have anything to do with ambition or getting ahead of anyone. It is not a means of gaining authority, power, or status over other people. True leadership is not what many people think it is. Leadership is a word used often, but generally not well-defined because it’s difficult to define. I would say “teamwork” is easier to define. “Leadership” is something you can define to a certain extent, but it’s hard to pin it down exactly. In the example I gave of the lower level person coming forward with a problem, to generalize to some extent you can say that was a case of someone taking responsibility for something that very few other people wanted to take responsibility for. They stepped out, stuck their neck out, took a risk, pointed something out. They came forward, addressed change where it was needed, rather than just floating along with the routine.

BW: So leadership is about taking responsibility, taking risks.

JM: Right.

BW: And I would think it’s also about stepping into the unknown, uncharted territory.

JM: That’s true in some situations. But it’s important to clarify that you can’t do that in an impulsive, haphazard manner. You have to be grounded in sound motives and exercise wisdom and discernment. Ultimately, you want to serve the greater good, the long term good of the whole, restore or improve the whole. Fundamentally, true leadership, healthy leadership is servitude. You’re serving the people below you and the people above you and everyone who is going to be influenced either directly or indirectly by whatever you decide. Whatever sphere that you have been given stewardship. And you give up self-interest to do that. Leadership is not a means of gaining status, recognition, popularity, approval, power, that sort of thing.

BW: You mentioned some people have a need for power or big egos. They clamor for positions, they strive, manipulate, and try to get into positions of power or influence for that reason. They may want status, prestige, respect, attention...

JM: Yeah, I think you’re doing a good job here of focusing on the fact that a lot of people strive and they manipulate and try to put themselves into top positions of leadership in the company or organization and it’s because that’s their purpose—they want the prestige, they want the money, they want the power, or the attention or to be thought highly of, compensate for low self esteem, all sorts of reasons and motives since people are so different. As opposed to the individual who has healthy motives and a strong belief in healthy leadership and builds himself in the company in such a way that his leadership gradually emerges.

BW: Someone can be very qualified in terms of education and experience, but their need for power taints their leadership.

JM: With position comes power and with power comes the possibility or potential for corruption. This is a good place and time to discuss corruption—it comes with any position and is a universal problem. Corruption goes hand in hand with bad leadership.

BW: There’s the old concept or expression “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts completely.”

JM: Corruption exists in every culture and organization and every country regardless of system. The seeds of it are in the human heart. It doesn’t matter what environment. It could be secular, religious, profit, nonprofit, on and on. You can have someone totally corrupt in say a nonprofit organization. Someone who wields power inappropriately to serve himself. I’m thinking of one executive in particular, someone who collected a salary, had the title but didn’t do their job, exercise leadership, hold people accountable. They were largely absent from their job and turned a blind eye to problems. They’re in the position for some political reason. Another person I am thinking of, again in a nonprofit—he used his power to manipulate, bend people to his will, get revenge, etc. He controlled his staff through fear, manipulation, intimidation, punishment to serve his own needs for control. There’s many examples of corruption. Again, corruption goes hand-in-hand with bad leadership. As everyone well knows, in history you have your self-serving tyrants, megalomaniacs, people seeking self-glory. It’s in some ways easier to talk about what is bad leadership than good leadership since there’s so many examples of bad leadership.

BW: Corruption—the basis or root of that seems to be self-interest. Using a position or material things or power that you are given stewardship over to serve the self, to serve own interests or the interests of close associates versus the greater good. So in a sense, corruption is the opposite of servitude.

JM: Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. And the truth is—we’re all susceptible. We’re all susceptible to and we’re all guilty of corruption and questionable motives to varying degrees at different times. You may think you are very well-intentioned or very spiritual and have good motives, but it may be that you just have a high need for control or a need to prove something or a need to get approval or whatever. So self-examination is always good and necessary. No one is perfect, humans are flawed, so that tendency towards corruption and skewed motives is always there, lurking.

BW: Since true leadership doesn’t involve striving in the sense of ambition, is it possible to learn how to become a good leader? There are many books now that break leadership down into a set or list of principles.

JM: I think you can learn a lot from those books, but every time you try to pin it down to a formula or set of principles, you lose something. People want a formula for this and a formula for that and there is a whole market catering to this need, and it is quite successful. And as I said you can learn a lot—I don’t think there’s anything wrong with those books in the sense that you do need to simplify and condense in order to discuss something or put it into book form, but the reality is, you can’t train someone or yourself to be a good leader like say, you can train someone to be a good worker on an assembly line. For example, one of the characteristics of leadership is the ability to get a group of people to work together for the common good. But how do you train someone to do that? You can’t really. Some people have that gift and other people don’t. There are some people who exude a natural authority and some people who don’t. So it’s hard to pin leadership down into some kind of formula that someone can repeat. And leadership has very much to do with the situation and circumstances.

BW: Like the example of leadership you gave of when you, as a soldier, were lost in the woods (in the topic “A Few Things Learned in World War II”.) But I would think character is a big variable in leadership.

JM: It goes without saying that good leadership requires ethics, a sense of integrity. As a leader, you yourself have to have integrity and stand for right and wrong. Good leadership needs to be grounded in justice. To just rattle off some attributes of say a leader who is responsible for subordinates: You want to be fair to the best of your ability—give appropriate consequences to behavior and apply discipline if necessary. But this needs to be done with fairness. You want to treat everyone fairly versus what you see often—favoritism. You want to show mercy and kindness to everyone. Ideally, you want to lead by example. You have to exemplify, to the best of your ability, what you want your people to embody. You can’t be a hypocrite, obviously. You should care about people—a real leader truly listens, cares about the people below him or her. And a good leader makes rational decisions. A leader shouldn’t be erratic, impulsive, capricious. And he or she should make decisions based on what’s best for people over the long term, which means having vision, versus decisions based on self-serving, egotistical motives, personal needs for promotion. All of this is a no-brainer, but easier said than done, obviously. People are more likely to follow people who have proven to be trustworthy, so yeah character is a big part of leadership.

BW: I see you as a natural leader. One of your chief attributes is humility and you are also very grounded. You went through many life experiences, and you worked in all sorts of humble jobs, which I think makes you very grounded in reality and stable. I think being grounded and stable is very important in a leader. Also humility is important. You never set out to be an executive coach or management consultant. Before your generation, that field didn’t even exist—it was definitely uncharted territory. Yet you became an early practitioner, essentially a pioneer and leader in that field, but that is something you never planned or set out to do. It seems like there are some things you can cultivate to be a good leader—things like character, attitude, ethics, etc. but some things are beyond individual control.

JM: Yes, that’s a good way to put it. For example, charisma. What is that exactly? When someone has charisma, what is that exactly? What makes someone attractive? What makes someone influential? It’s a mystery actually.

BW: I know the root of charisma is the Greek “charis” which means favor. The definition of charisma implies some kind of divine favor or influence.

JM: Something beyond human control or a formula. That’s why leadership is so hard to define and pin down compared to say “teamwork”.

BW: Some people strive or clamor for leadership positions, but there are some people who are called into leadership positions, especially in difficult times. Often people you least expect.

JM: I have a good example in General Eisenhower. He went through West Point and he grew in the ranks of the army, but for much of his career, he was never outstanding. At West Point he had some disciplinary issues and was mediocre academically. Throughout his career, he served in various positions in the army, but never in active duty since most of his career was during peacetime. People would say he was a good leader, but more or less, at a lower level. When World War II broke out, he was not even close to being considered as a top general for the war. He did really well as a commanding officer in what was called the Louisiana Maneuvers, which were army exercises in preparation for the war, so he was assigned to help come up with the war plans. Because of that, when the powers that be were figuring out who should be in what positions, they had quite a debate about who would be the top general for the entire European theater. And one of the people mentioned was Eisenhower. But he had never served in active duty. Some of the members of the group that were responsible for finding the right person said something like, “Eisenhower is good, he has shown leadership at the lower levels and organizational and administrative abilities, but he does not have the kind of leadership we need for running the war in all of Europe.” Well out of the debates and things of this nature, the decision was finally made to make Eisenhower the top general. And suddenly a person that nobody seemed to know—we never heard of him before—was put in command.

BW: From seemingly out of nowhere this guy just came up from the ranks.

JM: Basically, yeah.

BW: And once promoted, he really shined.

JM: He sure did. When he became top general, his real leadership burst out. I mean, it was there. But it had not shown up at that level before.

BW: Nobody could see it. Everybody had doubted him.

JM: Not everybody. But many. A lot of big politicians. There were probably, I don’t know how many, but maybe fifteen, twenty people that were discussing and debating, trying to decide on the right general. President Roosevelt was president at that time, and his cabinet members, the head of the army, and I’m not sure who else. Because they knew that if we were going to destroy Hitler, we had to have a top general who was a top leader. What emerged was General Eisenhower.

BW: And do you know why they ultimately chose him?

JM: I don’t think there’s a verbatim account of the meetings and decision making, but I know that George Marshall, as Army Chief of Staff, had a lot of say and input into the decision. If I had to guess, Marshall probably had some gut sense about him because on paper Eisenhower wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t that impressive either. I’m sure there were generals more qualified on paper. Eisenhower and he worked together in the preliminary war planning stages and at other times, and I’m sure Marshall sensed or noticed something about him. So that’s a good example of how this is beyond a formula.

BW: And once promoted, Eisenhower proved to be a great general.

JM: That’s right. Anyone can cultivate certain things to become a good leader but it’s some combination of character and circumstances that produces a great leader. What ultimately makes a great leader is very unique to the individual and circumstance, but generally hardship produces the best leaders. But good times also require a certain kind of leadership. A certain humility, like hey, this is nice, but things are probably going to change. But generally, adverse circumstances and situations create the most opportunities for great leadership. And the greater the adversity, then the greater the potential for great leadership.

BW: Someone can’t wake up one morning and say, I want to become a great leader so I will do this and that to become one.

JM: But many people treat it that way. Often it’s not a choice. A person ends up in a situation or a set of circumstances and they sort of naturally assume a leadership role, or circumstances forces them into it. For example, a company is in serious trouble—they’re in danger of going bankrupt—so for the person in charge, this becomes an opportunity to exercise great leadership, to help save the company, the jobs of everyone in the company. There may be economic and market reasons for why the company is in trouble. Or maybe it was corruption and self-serving motives that got the company in trouble to begin with. Or maybe a combination of the two. Regardless, this is an opportunity to take responsibility, exercise leadership and turn things around. But again, there needs to be the right attitude and right motive. For the long-term good, there needs to be a sense of service, servitude versus self-serving motives. Difficult decisions, sacrifices need to made. So again, true leadership is servitude.