The best way to understand leadership is to understand leaders.
As an adjunct professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University for 15 years (2003-2018), I taught two graduate-level leadership courses.
One of my courses, Executive communication as a leadership tool, blended leadership theory, principles, ideas, case studies, and so on with a strong focus on the most important leadership skill of all: communication. One of the books we used was George Washington’s Leadership Lessons by the late James C. Rees, longtime executive director of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Virginia estate.
We used this book for two reasons. First, I’ve gone through more textbooks on leadership than I remember, and in my opinion, there is no great textbook on leadership. There are, on the other hand, many great books about many great leaders, but great leadership textbooks? Not so much.
“Leadership cannot be taught.”
Harold Geneen, one of the iconic American entrepreneurs of the 1920sth century said, “Leadership cannot be taught; it can only be learned. Was she ever right? But as far as books go, reading books about — or about — leaders has far more impact than books about leadership
And second, while this book about America’s greatest leader is academically sound, historically accurate, and thoroughly researched, it’s written simply, clearly, and compellingly. The way to understand leadership is not through a textbook; it is by understanding leaders.
Skills or characteristics?
What makes this book and its lessons so relevant is, well, let’s save that answer for a moment. Let’s prepare it by asking ourselves what characteristics are essential for a successful leader.
The answer, when you read Rees, is clear as day. Let’s first look at the fifteen specific leadership lessons Rees draws. He says, a leader (1) has a vision, (2) is honest, (3) has ambition, (4) is courageous, (5) has self-control, (6) takes personal responsibility, (7) is determined , (8) has a strong work ethic, (9) uses common sense, (10) learns from mistakes, (11) is humble, (12) does research and development, (13) values presentation, (14) exceeds expectations, and (15) has sincere faith.
Leadership is about “soft skills”.
OK, no discussions with any of them, but what’s the big picture? When you take in the 30,000 foot view, it’s easy to see. None of these lessons have anything to do with technical skills, or “hard skills” as we call them. These are all personal traits or “soft skills”. Each of them. None of them depend on how skilled you are as a biologist or accountant or shortstop or surgeon. They are about the kind of person you are.
In other words, leadership roles, functions, or opportunities go to leaders, not necessarily the people who do regression analysis or build a building or analyze a spreadsheet better than anyone else. Sure, you have to be great at what you do, but your leadership journey begins where your functional journey ends.
When I was assigned to teach my first course, I thought it might be a good idea to develop a relevant working definition of a leader. Not finding one to my satisfaction anywhere, I took it upon myself to develop one. Here it is.
“A leader is someone who has – and articulates – a vision, creates change, and inspires others to achieve common goals by building more effective working relationships.”
Again, there’s nothing technical about it, no “hard skills” in there. Your true value as a leader isn’t about how well you do your job; it’s about how well you inspire others to do theirs.