Learning Leadership

By Lear, Robert W. | Chief Executive (U.S.), July 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Learning Leadership


Lear, Robert W., Chief Executive (U.S.)


One of the long running games that business executives and business writers play is to identify the special traits that successful leaders have. CEOs, who have lived the life, are skilled players in this arcane sport. Academics, as the chroniclers of business trivia, are particularly adept at coming up with the words that define the delicate shadings of leadership, that separate the men from the boys, and lift up the true leaders above the routine managers.

For three years now, my fellow Executives-in-Residence at Columbia Business School and I have been teaching a course in Executive Leadership. I say "teaching," but what we mostly do is bring in outstanding businesspeople-mostly CEOs-and let our students see and hear for themselves what it seems to take in order to be selected for and then perform effectively in a high-level, high-pay, high-profile job. We emphasize business leadership how it is developed and learned from experience and mentoring and watching. We are far more interested in real-life, active business executives than we are in the philosophical stories of Moses, Napoleon, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Vince Lombardi, Mother Theresa, and Pat Riley.

The message that comes through to our students is clear from each individual, but very complicated when the students try to distill it into an "answer." In truth, we are all finding out that there are no answers; there is no simple formula for successful leadership; there are no singular traits that apply to all persons and all situations.

As an exercise, for the last three years I have been writing down the leadership traits that our 25 or so case executives have mentioned as desirable, vital, or even mandatory elements of their personal success and of the other business leaders they have known and respected. My list has 41 traits (see list) and I suspect, in time, it will grow to be more than 100.

Not all of our excellent leaders and our respected writers agree with all of these traits. Peter Drucker, one of the more pragmatic observers of the business scene, once said that he has known many outstanding leaders and the one thing he could find in common was a total lack of charisma. Yet, charisma was an often used word in describing leadership by our executives.

A most interesting factor is that no two executives had the same list of traits. That really should not be surprising, because all of our executives were different. …

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