What makes a great leader?
February 20th, 2011
05:59 PM ET

What makes a great leader?

The United States has a president who has an unusual background. No, I'm not talking about Barack Obama's Kenyan or Indonesian roots. I'm talking about the fact that he comes out of the legislature.

Almost all American presidents have had executive experience. There have been vice presidents, governors or generals. Over the last century, only two before President Obama have come directly from the legislature, John F. Kennedy and Warren Harding.

Does this matter? After all, most people think of John F. Kennedy as a very good president, and, at any rate, a man who vigorously exercised executive power.

Is President Obama's background the right one for an age in which negotiations are inevitable and compromise with the legislature is essential? Or is he just too weak as a president?

To answer these questions intelligently, we need ask ourselves what makes a good leader? What makes a great leader? I think the answer will vary widely, depending on the time and place. After all, the qualities that made Gen. George Patton a successful head of the Third Army are probably not the same as those that will help a managing partner in a law firm lead his team in New York.

Max Weber famously made distinctions between charismatic leaders, authoritarian leaders and bureaucratic leaders. Charismatic leaders inspire, authoritarian ones command, and bureaucratic ones manage. I would add a fourth, a collegial leader, one who leads by persuasion.

When I travel around the country and around the world, there's one thing people often want to know. They say to me, you meet so many people who run things - countries, companies, government agencies. What strikes you as the best qualities of a leader?

So, let's explore exactly that. Let's think through what makes a good leader by listening to some of the people who have led in various fields. You will find that they emphasize different aspects of leaderships. Some have tasks that require more command, others more persuasion. But perhaps the truth is that to succeed in any of these positions, one needs a mix of all these qualities.

Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, on how he steered a nation:

Lou Gerstner, who has taken some American corporate icons from the brink of bankruptcy to billions in profits, on leading through crisis:

Former Governor of New Jersey, Christie Whitman, on how a woman can lead in world that is often still male-dominated:

Rick Levin, the president of Yale University, on leading by persuasion:

Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on not just how to lead, but how to command:

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Topics: Economy • Fareed's Take • Politics

soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Stephen Judy

    Fareed It doesn't matter one iota,the reason being is because great leaders can appear from any walk of life or office depending on the environmental conditions as well,great leaders come from sheer poverty as well as opulence.To me its almost as if anyone can become a great leader and almost ,if not be, just as valuable to there community as the president.A great leader sees what going on in the world,and seizes the opportunity to selflessly devote all there energy for the people.A great leader is a man of peace and integrity that does things that benefits the community in major ways.A great leader fervently works for the best interest of the people they are leading with complete loyalty and patriotism. Join me in promoting world peace and a united world. By granting illegal citizens citizenship and making them pay higher taxes for 10 years as a penalty,we will solve our immigration problem as well as our economic problem by creating traction and funds that are desperately needed,this is only a supplemental step ,the real solution to fixing our economy is like how we fix our healthcare system(ending all global aid and wasteful spending and granting universal healthcare)except the only difference is instead of ending global aid,we're ending global business,and outsourcing and corporate double dipping at the expense of the american people,mark my words, you will never have the economy we once had unless this is done!Join me in my quest to increase peace throughout the world and the fair representation of all peoples. https://sites.google.com/site/presidentskj

    March 6, 2011 at 8:27 pm | Reply
  2. Dot

    The world is changing so is the definition of power, soft power which is the practice of the present Obama led administration; thanks to his legislative background is what the world needs at this particular time. Thank GOD the president knows this. Moreover, Obama from his campaign days for the office emphasized his administration would focus more on domestic issues which is what I would want to believe got him a land slide victory in 2008 elections, and that is what he has done so far.

    America is at a crossed road in its reign as a world power. For the first time in decades US government is having to take into account the interest of another country (China) which is challenging America's hegemony around the world, before acting. Unfortunately many Americans including politicians do not appreciate the power China is wielding worldwide, fortunately President Obama is aware of this, and his administration has handled national and international relations with more maturity than many of his predecessor; with very little credit given to him for this. Which I believe makes him a Unique leader in this challenging times.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Reply

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