The universe we know and inhabit is random, chaotic, and entropic. We impose order, temporarily, and with uncertain consequence. A multitude of coherent individual actions may, in sum, be non-coherent. They may conflict. We invent rules to lubricate human activity, but lubrication is not an engine. Leadership is the engine that brings out the best in human society. Leadership is the engine that will power America in the twenty-first century.

During the early years of my life I had the very best leadership training and experience. I attached no special significance to that fact until many years later when I had the painful, good fortune to be associated with an organization that had the worst possible leadership. The contrast between the best and the worst caused me to realize that I possessed a valuable insight into the nature of leadership.

The shelves of bookstores are burdened with books about how to be a successful chief executive of a major corporation. Most of us spend most of our lives not being a chief executive of a major corporation. Most of our leadership time is invested in eyeball to eyeball, nitty-gritty, sweat producing confrontations in less than glamorous surroundings. This essay is for those who learn, teach, and lead. It is for those who are under fire in the front lines of leadership.

We sometimes expect or hope that the next President of the United States will solve our problems. It will not happen. Pray that it does not happen, because if it does, another Hitler or Stalin will have put his imprint on humanity. Our society has become vast and complex, and the velocity of change is dramatic. No single leader can solve our problems, democratically, not even a President of the United States. Tens of thousands of leaders are required.

The best laws for regulating human conduct are derived from socially approved behaviors which develop gradually in a human community and are codified only after acceptance is nearly universal. Enforcement is substantially accomplished by instruction of the young and by social disapproval of errant behavior. The formal system of enforcement can then handle the occasional aberrant behavior without undue burden.

In the stable mid-western community where I grew up several decades ago, high school civics teachers told their students that ignorance of the law was not an excuse for breaking the law because "everyone knows right from wrong." In that community, in that era, a rational person who reached 21 years of age had been imbued with a sense of right and wrong. It is not true today. The concept of right and wrong is in a state of change in our society.

We enter the twenty-first century AD (or CE) as billions of people with colliding interests, powerful technology, and primitive instincts. The simple, ancient concepts govern our behavior: greed, fear, love, hate, courage, desire for power over others, passion, compassion, and charity. Our behavior has changed very little since time immemorial. We speak a thousand languages, each representing centuries of isolation. We are challenged to find transcendental values in almost every human endeavor to optimize our potential and to avoid endless conflict and chaos.

The opportunity for emergence of leaders is great. The need for leadership is unparalleled.

Defining Leadership

It is difficult to provide a useful definition of leadership. Leadership is a means used to cause people to do what we want them to do, but there are many ways to achieve that end and most of them are not leadership.

Things that are NOT Leadership

We place first reliance on physical force. A system of revenue production and a system to implement physical force are the bases for every government, even the most democratic governments. We devote vast resources to military forces and police forces. We rely on physical force to implement our will, when necessary, both internationally and domestically. Even those among us who fervently believe in the value of leadership as a means to an end are not prepared to forego military and police forces. Leadership as a means to an end has not been perfected to a degree that would allow us to have sufficient confidence to rely on it for crucial matters of state.

Historically, physical force, including torture, has been a primary tool used by governments, criminals, and even business if we include the institution of slavery. And, sadly, physical force has too often been used in family and personal relations. The idea that government could regulate physical force and govern the application of physical force by law has been in the process of refinement for centuries. Leadership, as a means to achieve ends, is a relatively new intellectual concept, even though leadership may have been practiced, successfully, by thousands of leaders over the centuries.

Would a leader rely on physical force? Probably. But physical force is not leadership. It is merely one tool among many used to achieve an end.

Although we routinely rely on physical force, we are frequently distressed by the result of the application of physical force and generally believe it should be used, infrequently, for the defense of society. Hence, we perceive a need for other means to accomplish our objectives.

After force we place reliance on authority. Authority may be backed by force though not necessarily. We vest people who head organizations with the authority deemed necessary for successful operation of those organizations. We do not rely on leadership. Such vesting includes authority to hire and fire, promote or not, transfer, design or abolish jobs, and control funds. Business, governmental, and charitable organizations are routinely vested with various degrees of authority. We have, in Western societies, attempted to limit the use of physical force to specific institutions, individuals, and defined situations. The license to use physical force is carefully restricted. Authority, however, is available to a much wider range of people. Authority is a powerful tool to compel human behavior. But authority is not leadership. We might be content to be subjected to authority were authority perfectly executed. Unfortunately, authority, although necessary, is imperfectly executed by fallible human beings.

There are other "carrot and stick" techniques used to shape behavior which are neither force, authority, nor leadership. Coercion is one of those means. Coercion, as used here, is basically a request wherein the requester has a capability to punish non-compliance. The punishment is often indirect, but real. Coercion is fairly common. Coercion is a means to achieve an end. It is not leadership.

Intimidation is another tool used to exact desired human behavior. Intimidation is exploitation of fear. Leaders allay fear. They do not exploit fear. Fearless people cannot be intimidated. But fearlessness is not always wise. Many individuals have very limited capabilities, especially compared to wealthy and powerful organizations, and those people may be vulnerable to intimidation. Naive people may also be intimidated by awe. Intimidation is not an act of leadership. Exploitation of fear is not leadership.

Threat is a tool used to gain compliance. A threat may be direct or implied and may be backed by a real capability or it may be a bluff. Threat makes good Hollywood entertainment when the good guys tell the bad guys how it is going to be. But in real life, leaders do not threaten. There are confrontational situations in international affairs where future actions are announced to preclude misinterpretation and unintended military conflagration. These actions may exhibit characteristics of threat but have a broader purpose.

Blackmail is a means sometimes used to influence human behavior. It is a derivation of threat, usually a threat to reveal embarrassing information. It is definitely not a leadership tool.

Flattery is another means to shape attitude. Flattery is insincere or unwarranted praise. Leaders certainly extend justified praise but never flatter.

Deceit may be used to affect human behavior. When discovered it destroys trust. Deceit is not a leadership tool. Deceit is the practice of misleading people which, by definition, is not leading.

Bribery, the payment of something of value to effect a particular behavior, is not a leadership tool.

Humiliation of others is sometimes used to shape human behavior, but not by leaders.

Fear is a prime motivator of human behavior, but leaders do not exploit fear. Leaders allay fear.

Hatred is a prime motivator of human behavior. Leaders do not exploit hatred.

Acceptance and rejection, both formal and informal, are means to shape human behavior. Acceptance into a group or rejection from the group can be a powerful factor in shaping behavior. It is a leadership tool only if the acceptance or rejection is based on legitimate, accepted rules of the group governing acceptance or rejection.

Praise, promise, promotion, and reward are means that a leader uses if warranted, but only if warranted. Misuse of these means is not an act of leadership.

Persuasion is a legitimate means of influencing human behavior and is used by leaders, but a caveat is needed. A confidence man uses persuasion to "con" his victims. We shall return to the subject of persuasion.

Imagine that you awaken and discover that you are the only human being on the planet. Everyone else has disappeared. You own everything. You own all of the luxury homes, resorts, hotels, restaurants, businesses, entertainment industries, airlines, automobiles, cruise ships, all of the gold, diamonds, cash, stocks and bonds, manufacturing industries, minerals, productive farm land and forests. It's all yours. Are you wealthy? No, you are impoverished. Who will generate your electricity? Who will pilot your airliner? Who will grow your food? Who will prepare your gourmet meals? Who will provide your medical care? Who will produce your entertainment? Who will manufacture your clothing? Ownership of physical objects and financial instruments is not wealth per se. Wealth is the power to compel people to do what you want them to do. If each of us possessed equal wealth, no one would be wealthy. It would not be possible to compel other people to do the grunge work. Without substantial numbers of non-wealthy people, wealth does not exist. Use of wealth to get people to do what we want them to do may be benign or harmful, but in either case, it is not leadership. It is a different means to achieve an end.

We can list most of the means that are not force or authority and not leadership under the generic term, manipulation. Deception and manipulation are common practices. We find it very easy to convince ourselves that the end justifies the means. Civilization is, in part, recognition that only carefully defined and approved means of influencing or controlling behavior are acceptable.

Most writings about leadership fail to distinguish among the various means that may be used to gain compliance. Differentiation among those means is essential if we are to understand leadership. An analogy may explain the need for precise differentiation. At some point in human history our ancestors began to recognize that diseases might be caused by microorganisms they loosely called germs. It was a useful insight, but accurate knowledge of disease prevention and cure awaited differentiation between bacteria and viruses, and further differentiation among the many types of each as well as the environment required for each type of organism. And, of course, refinement of the differentiation goes much further. The capability to distinguish differences, great and subtle, is a necessary part of the advancement of science and civilization. Our concept of leadership is meaningless unless we distinguish the things that constitute leadership from other means used to cause people to act at our behest. We can effectively teach leadership only when we clearly understand what it is and, quite importantly, what it is not.

We have examined some of the things that do not constitute leadership. We will now look at what does constitute leadership.


Leadership is based on earned trust. Trust is earned "up close and personal" and, excepting extraordinary circumstances, requires an extensive investment of time: years, decades, a lifetime. Trust is never permanently earned. It must be continuously re-earned. Trust is earned by placing the welfare of your followers before your own welfare. Trust is earned by actions that demonstrate, unequivocally, your reliability. Trust is earned by taking personal risks to benefit your followers. Trust is earned by making personal sacrifices to benefit your followers. Trust is earned by demonstrating competence. Trust is earned by accepting responsibility and accountability for your actions. Trust is earned by demonstrating integrity. Trust is earned by displaying courage: physical bravery when required, moral courage always. Physical courage, far from universal, is more common than moral courage. We reward physical courage. We rarely reward moral courage, but moral courage is an indispensable aspect of leadership. Trust is earned by being sincere. Some people may be "natural" leaders, but all of these things that constitute leadership can be learned and willfully practiced.

Hope is central to the human spirit. When hope fades life ceases. Maintenance of hope is a leadership function that warrants recognition. Sir Ernest Shackleton led an exploratory expedition to Antarctica in 1914. The ship was crushed by ice. The crew, led by Shackleton, survived on ice floes for two years under conditions that could easily have caused despair. Shackleton preserved hope, and all of the crew survived. Whether Shackleton would have been an equally effective leader in different circumstances, a modern industrial organization for example, can be debated, but his ability to preserve hope under adverse conditions may be unequaled.

Leadership is required when the burden is onerous or the issue requires contravention of conventional wisdom. Leadership is not easy because leadership isn't required to get people to do something they want to do. It doesn't require leadership to persuade children to visit an ice cream parlor. Leadership is required if the follower must risk something he values. Leadership is required if the follower must commit time or effort or must sacrifice. Leadership is required when the follower is asked to pursue a course he would ordinarily not pursue, do something he would prefer to avoid and would not do unless asked by a leader who has earned his trust and respect.

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