A Fresh Perspective on Effective Leadership from the Socrates Society

"You are entitled to have your own opinion; you are not entitled to have your own facts.”

                                                        Daniel Patrick Moynihan

I participated in an outstanding three day seminar on Effective Leadership over the July 4th holiday weekend at the Aspen Institute’s Socrates Society. Our seminar was led by David R. Gergen, former advisor to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton and currently Professor of Public Service and Director of the Center for Leadership at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Our group of seminarians consisted of twenty one men and eight women and included Jews, Christians, and Muslims with professional backgrounds spanning academia, venture capital, the non-profit sector, lawyers, entrepreneurs, journalists, and public servants. Drawing from assigned readings as a framework for the discussion, we came together to learn from an expert on leadership about the qualities that define effective leadership, the personal traits that make great leaders, the internal psychological challenges that all leaders must contend with, and the dark side of leadership.

We also learned from each other as we identified some of the important characteristics that we believe will define the next generation of American leaders. A brief summary of some of the most important points that I took away from the seminar follows below:

The Essence of Effective Leaders

• Individuals do matter in history, and one person can make disproportionate contributions to society as a leader.

• Leadership means the capacity to mobilize others in the pursuit of shared goals.

• The quality of the leader’s relationship to his/her followers will enhance or detract from the leader’s ability to be effective.

• Effective leaders can be good, and they can also be evil.

• A leader is shaped by his/her own early personal life experience, and his/her ability to contribute will be circumscribed by his/her own historical context.

• Leaders should be encouraged to lead from positive core values and should be influenced by an internal moral compass.

• Leaders are passionate, charismatic individuals driven to make a difference in their society; they find fulfillment and self actualization from leading.

• The best form of leadership combines idealism and pragmatism.

• Pragmatic leadership requires flexibility and the ability to be ruthless in the course of reaching your goal.

• No leader lives without personal flaws and weaknesses.  One can be an effective moral leader despite having personal flaws (for example, Gandhi and Martin Luther King) while striving to manage one’s darker side.

• Leaders can’t erase their weaknesses, but they can manage them. Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton are examples of leaders who failed to sufficiently manage their weaknesses.

• Great leaders have brain, heart, and soul—meaning analytical capacity/curiosity, compassion, and a moral compass.

• Great leaders maintain a capacity for self-doubt and a measure of humility throughout their lives—they recognize their own ability to make mistakes.

Defining the Next Generation of American Leaders

• The early adolescence of the Internet age, as it accelerates globalization and the advent of a flat world, is also transforming the profile of the next generation of global leaders.

• Technology, through powerful communications tools such as blogs and email, has empowered individuals to make positive or negative contributions to their societies on a scale heretofore unknown and unavailable.

• The next generation of global leaders will be able to forge communities of interest and reach followers through new media channels that will both challenge traditional political institutions and make them less relevant.

• Lack of participation by Americans in the political process may be less a sign of apathy and more a sign of alienation from a set of institutions and interest groups seen as ineffective resource allocators and unreliable stewards of the common good.

• We live in the midst of a spiraling crisis of leadership in the machinery of U.S. government because talented people increasingly choose not to become a part of the government.

• More and more people in our generation want to have a positive impact on society and do not see the government as the most effective channel to accomplish this goal.

• Role models for the next generation of American leaders are more likely to come from the ranks of entrepreneurs (such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs), not from political figures.

• Social entrepreneurs feel that self-reliance and grass roots movements are far more effective at producing results than traditional government channels, hence the explosion in private foundations, social venture networks, and other non-governmental non-profit organizations in the U.S.

• The limited world view of most U.S. citizens is a serious handicap to continued U.S. leadership in the world.

• The next generation of American leaders will understand the concept of being “global citizens”.

• The next generation of leaders is likely to include individuals with strong entrepreneurial backgrounds because they have shown a willingness to take risk and to experiment.

• Today, the United States lacks the national will to maintain global technology leadership as a high priority– China and India do not have this problem, though they face other structural issues that make their unfettered ascension to this leadership position debatable.

• The goal of lifting the standards of education in the United States is a matter of national security, and its achievement will contribute to upward social mobility and greater equality in this country.

• The gap between the haves and have nots in America is widening at an accelerating pace—issues of social justice, the equitable treatment of different socio-economic groups, and greater equality are returning to the forefront of the change agenda in this country.

• A social safety net is required in the U.S.—it is unacceptable to pursue freedom recklessly while ignoring the casualties of the free market’s essential “freedom to fail”.

• The crucible of war (WWI, WW II, and Vietnam) has defined the past three generations of American leaders. While it is not clear what will be the crucible that defines the next generation of American leaders— some series of wrenching events will catalyze the various factors described above into a systemic change that will complete this transition.

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