The best way to understand leadership is to understand leaders.
As an adjunct professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, I taught two graduate-level leadership courses for 15 years (2003-2018).
One of my courses, Executive communication as a management tool, a blend of leadership theory, principles, ideas, case studies, and more, 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 of the late James C. Rees, longtime executive director of the George Washington estate in Mount Vernon, VA.
We used this book for two reasons. First, I have looked through more leadership textbooks than I care to remember, and in my opinion there is no great leadership textbook. On the other hand, there are many great books about many great leaders, but great leadership textbooks? Not too much.
“Leadership cannot be taught.”
Harold Geneen, one of the iconic American business leaders of the 20th centuryth century said: “Leadership cannot be learned; it can only be learned.” Was he ever right. But when it comes to books, reading books about—or by—leaders is far more influential than books about leadership
And second, while academically sound, historically accurate, and thoroughly researched, this book about America’s greatest leader is written in a simple, clear, and compelling manner. The path to understanding leadership is not through a textbook; it is with the understanding of the leaders.
Skills or Traits?
What makes this book and the lessons in it so important, well, let’s save that answer for a moment. Let’s put it by asking what qualities are essential for a successful leader.
The answer is clear as day when you read Rees. First, let’s take a look at the fifteen specific leadership lessons that Rees delivers. According to him, a leader (1) has vision, (2) is honest, (3) has ambition, (4) has courage, (5) has self-control, (6) takes personal responsibility, (7) is determined, (8) has a strong work ethic, (9) uses good judgment, (10) learns from mistakes, (11) is humble, (12) conducts research and development, (13) values presentation, (14) exceeds expectations, and (15) has sincere faith.
Leadership is about “soft skills”.
Okay, no arguing with either of them, but what’s the bigger picture? When you shoot the view from 30,000 feet, it’s easy to see. None of these lessons have anything to do with technical skills or “hard skills” as we call them. They are all either personal traits or “soft skills”. Every single one of them. None of them depend on how skilled a biologist or accountant or fast runner or surgeon you are. It’s all about what kind of person you are.
In other words, leadership roles, functions, or opportunities go to managers, not necessarily to people who do regression analysis or build a building or analyze a spreadsheet better than everyone else. Of course you need to be good at what you do, but your leadership journey begins where your functional journey ends.
When I was appointed to teach my first course, I thought it would be a good idea to develop a proper working definition of a leader. Since I couldn’t find one that satisfied me anywhere, I took it upon myself to develop it. Here is.
“A leader is someone who has—and articulates—a vision, creates change, and inspires others to achieve shared goals while creating more effective working relationships.”
Again, there is nothing technical about it, no “hard skills”. Your true worth as a leader is not how well you do your job; it’s about how well you inspire others to do theirs.