Leading Questions

By Lear, Robert W. | Chief Executive (U.S.), June 1996 | Go to article overview

Leading Questions


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


The most widely written about subject in the world is leadership. What are the qualities of a leader? How much is natural, what can be taught, and how much must be learned from experience? Do business leaders differ from political, military, or athletic leaders and, if so, how? What's the difference between a leader and a manager?

Everybody has a glib answer. Academics, historians, playwrights, reporters, and consultants unceasingly pound away at their word processors. Some leaders, including CEOs, try to define the traits that made them unusually successful. Nearly all retired leaders, especially CEOs, like to reflect on leadership and its nuances. The result is a massive outpouring of words and paper.

I know this because I recently finished preparing a syllabus and, with my fellow executives-in-residence, began teaching a new course in Executive Leadership at Columbia Business School. I haven't read everything that has been written on the subject-no one could-but I have read far more than my share.

In the process, I have found that the old adage still holds true: The teacher learns more than the students. After all that effort, I am entitled to some of my own conclusions. For what they're worth, here are my primary observations about CEO leadership:

There is not-and never will be-a single list of leadership qualities that apply to all CEOs. Each CEO is different, each has a unique set of natural talents and a variable family background, education, economic exposure, career path, and situational experiences. Yet each possesses-and does not possess-a number of the usual list of suspected attributes. The special qualities and the variety of permutations make the list for each CEO different from any other.

Leadership qualities occur at all levels of the corporate organization and usually are demonstrated before the CEO is appointed. Leadership propensity is more easily recognized when the executive has a line responsibility-such as managing a plant, a sales office, a profit centerand most difficult to discern when he or she holds a staff position. By the same token, leadership most often exhibits itself when crises and problems arise, and that happens most often, but not always, in line positions.

Leadership skills can be acquired through teaching, mentoring, observation, and experience. Some people have less to learn, some learn faster, and some never learn. A person is more susceptible to learning leadership skills if he or she knows what to look for and wants to acquire such skills. …

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