Love them or hate them, you can’t live without them. They can improve your life and brighten your future, or ruin your life and destroy your future with equal facility. They are the ubiquitous “bosses” and leaders in your life.

Even though Thomas Carlyle’s great men theory of history is no longer in vogue, one does not need to be a historian to realize that leaders at the top can make all the difference in the world for good or for evil.

Just ask yourself a simple question: What kind of world would we be living in had Al Gore been elected president of the United States instead of George Bush? Would the world be safer with Gore in the White House?

You may apply this mini “thought experiment” to your own country, organization, school, or church. You might be shocked to discover how a leader’s strengths and weaknesses, personal traits, and character flaws can directly impact your life.

Given the serious consequences of leadership, we need to be very serious about whom we vote into office. Beware of any kind of popularity test, because popularity often camouflages a lack of competence and integrity. Don’t fall for empty promises and charming smiles. To get to the heart of assessing leadership, we need to ask a tough question: What are the defining characteristics of great leaders?

Who Are the Greatest American Presidents?

Looking at the current field of American presidential candidates from both parties, can we tell which one of them will make a great leader? One way to answer this question is to look back to history. Who are the greatest American presidents in the past? What makes them stand head and shoulders above the rest?

Several names consistently appear among the ten greatest presidents according to various rankings. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt typically ranked at the top of these lists. Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Jackson, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, James K. Polk, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan have often been ranked in the “top ten.”

Not all of them were charismatic leaders, but they were all able to earn the trust of the people because of their integrity and character. The dark forces, which might have destroyed lesser mortals, actually had the opposite effect of enhancing their status and magnifying their exceptional qualities. They have substantially changed the direction of the nation, uplifted the spirit of the people, and left a positive and enduring legacy.

Without exception, these great presidents confronted huge foreign and domestic challenges with courage, wisdom, vision, optimism, and a deep sense of responsibility. They not only overcame enormous difficulties but also achieved phenomenal and lasting success.

For example, Franklin Roosevelt had to face the greatest economic depression in modern history and the combined threats from the Germans and Japanese. He rallied the country after the disaster of Pearl Harbor and created the “arsenal of democracy” to defeat the aggressors. During all those years of titanic struggles, his tired and frail body must have been sustained by some extraordinary inner strength.

Similarly, Ronald Reagan had to simultaneously tackle a failing economy and a hostile “evil empire.” Eventually, he was able to revive the economy while limiting government spending and he won a cold war without bloodshed. He survived a near fatal assassination attempt with courage and humor. His optimism and winsome smile never left him even in the darkest hour.

How do we know who will be the next great president? How can we judge without the benefit of legacy and the wisdom of history? We can’t, but we can still learn something from the greats in the past before casting our votes for the next president or prime minister.

Who Are the Greatest CEOs?

Great CEOs are also in a league of their own. They are the rare leaders that money cannot buy. They are capable of turning a company from the brink of bankruptcy into a great, enduring organization; they can transform a toxic corporate culture into something inviting and uplifting. Again, we can learn precious lessons from these exceptional leaders.

According to Jeffrey A. Krames (2003) the seven greatest contemporary CEOs are: Michael Dell (Dell Computers), Jack Welch (GE), Lou Gerstner (IBM), Andy Grove (Intel), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines), and Sam Walton (Wal-Mart). All seven are household names. They all have achieved spectacular successes that benefit consumers. Each has a unique vision and an innovative business strategy, but they all have the courage to embrace change, the passion to pursue their dream, and the competence to carry it out.

Jim Collins (2005), author of Good to Great and co-author of Built to Last, has identified the ten greatest CEOs of all times. Four criteria were used to winnow a pool of more than 400 successful CEOs: legacy (enduring success), impact (great innovations), resilience (overcoming major crises), and performance (outstanding cumulative stock returns). Gates, Grove, Welch, and Gerstner were excluded because they have not been out of office for at least ten years, therefore, they cannot be evaluated in terms of legacy.

What a selection of diverse individuals! Some of them were unlikely CEO materials. Katharine Graham stepped into the position of CEO of the Washington Post after her husband’s suicide and rose to the occasion with extraordinary courage and wisdom. William McKnight, creator of 3M, was a bookish accountant who turned innovation into a system of success. Darwin Smith was told “You’ll never be a leader” by the Army’s officer training school. Yet, he turned Kimberly-Clark into the world’s No. 1 paper-based consumer-products company by selling off all the giant paper mills and refocusing on a sideline product, Kleenex. Charles Coffin, the first president of General Electric, came from the shoe business without any engineering training; yet he created the first research laboratory and a system of creating a succession of brilliant scientists and great executives.

Some CEOs achieved greatness because of their sense of social responsibility. David Packard made social responsibility of sharing wealth a cornerstone of Hewlett-Packard’s corporate culture. David Maxwell turned Fannie Mae from bankruptcy into a great company; his greatest genius, according to Collins, “was to frame the rebuilding around a mission: strengthening America’s social fabric by democratizing home ownership.” James Burke courageously adhered to the credo of Johnson & Johnson—product safety was more important than financial concerns. George Merck put social responsibility above profit; he declared in 1952 that: “Medicine is for people, not for profits.”

Others became great CEOs because of their unique and timely vision. Sam Walton refused to let his charisma get in the way of his mission: to make better things ever more affordable to people of lesser means. Bill Allen built Boeing into a commercial success because he thought in bigger time frames and larger purposes than his critics. One important lesson Allen learned: “Don’t talk too much. Let others talk.”

What made these ten CEOs so great? They loom larger than life, precisely because they gave themselves and their talents totally to serving a larger vision than personal success. They all had different personal traits and talents, “Yet if one thing defines these ten giants, it was their deep sense of connectedness to the organizations they ran,” Collin wrote. They understood the paradox of leadership: “Much depended on them, but it was never about them.”

Twelve Defining Characteristics of Great Leaders

What sets apart great leaders from those who are merely good? The above case and the larger leadership literature have pointed to the following twelve defining characteristics. No one leader may possess all these characteristics, but all great leaders must demonstrate at least some of the following strengths and virtues:

  1. Great capacity for productive work — They seem to possess boundless energy and thrive under stress. They are able to work indefatigably for years on end in order to accomplish an important project. Their stamina and tenacity give them a decided advantage. They manage to work with great enthusiasm even when they cannot get into a state of “flow.” Their consistent productivity is based on their deeply ingrained habits of commitment and discipline.
  2. Great vision for the right direction — They can see things clearer and farther than others. They have insight into just what is needed and the foresight to see what will succeed in the long run. They can feel the pulse of the world which they inhabit and anticipate the world which is not yet born. Time and time again, they prove that they have the right answer, even when conventional wisdom and tradition dictate otherwise. Their vision is neither a grand illusion, nor abstract ideal. Rather, it is a living document that inspires, unites, and energizes others.
  3. Great intellect and knowledge — They are intelligent, knowledgeable, and competent not only in their specialty, but also in the general area of humanities, social sciences, and business administration. They have a good grasp of complex issues and the ability to get to the crux of the matter. They have the genius of holding two opposing views and the wisdom to navigate cross-currents.
  4. Great people skills — They work well with all kinds of people from different cultures because they have a deep understanding of human nature and basic human needs that transcend cultures. They see both the bright and dark side of people, without losing faith in the human potential for positive change. They don’t judge others on the basis of beliefs, values, or other cultural characteristics, because they respect the basic human dignity of all people. Understanding and flexibility characterize their leadership style. They know how to resolve conflicts and foster harmony. They know that different folks need different strokes, and they apply different management skills to handle different situations.
  5. Great team-builders — They do not surround themselves with people who are subservient and loyal only to them, but select competent and creative people who are faithful to the same vision and mission. They welcome diverse opinions and value people who are smarter than they are in various areas of expertise. They know how to put together and manage an A-team to insure organizational success.
  6. Great motivators — They create a supportive and meaningful work environment and make people feel that they matter to the organization. They generate intrinsic motivation by involving people in the excitement of doing something significant and purposeful. They capitalize on people’s strengths and know how to unleash these inner energies. They see the potential in every person and want to bring out the best in them. They empower workers to develop their potential to become great workers and leaders. They set challenging but realistic goals. By setting an example of excellence in everything they do, they make it the standard for all aspects of their operations.
  7. Great heart — Their heart is big enough to embrace the entire organization and the whole world. They are neither partisan nor petty. They reach out to those who do not agree with them. They don’t mind to be proven wrong or outshined by others; their main concern is the common good. They don’t hold grudges; they are always ready to forgive and apologize. Their capacity for compassion is equal to their understanding.
  8. Great communicators — They can articulate a vision and tell compelling stories to rally people around a common goal. They know how to inform as well as inspire. Above all, they are good listeners. They understand people’s needs and feelings by talking to them on a personal level. Their ability to resonate with others is based not so much on communication skills as on their deeply felt sense of connectedness with the organization and humanity.
  9. Great optimists — They stay optimistic even when circumstances are bleak. Their optimism stems from personal faith more than anything else—faith that good will prevail over evil and persistence will eventually lead to success. They know how to inspire hope through difficult times, while battling their own inner doubts. Their proven capacity to endure and overcome inspires others to be optimistic about the unknown.
  10. Great courage — They have the courage to confront their worst fears and risk everything in order to remain true to their own convictions and other people’s trust. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to persist and act in the presence of fear. They know how to live with the continued tension between despair and hope, doubts and confidence, fear and courage. They grow stronger as a result of this constant opposition.
  11. Great self-knowledge — They know who they are and what they stand for. They know that their strengths contain the seeds of destruction (e.g., overconfidence). They also accept their own weaknesses and limitations as the essential conditions of being human. They are willing to accept negative feedback in order to improve themselves. They would not let their ego get in the way of doing what is good for the organization. Feeling comfortable in their own skin reduces their defensiveness. Their humility comes from their emotional maturity and self-knowledge.
  12. Great character — Above all, they possess integrity and authenticity. They have the moral courage to stand up for their beliefs and do what is right, no matter how much it will cost them. To them, integrity is more important than success. Their leadership is principle-centered and purpose-driven, regardless of the pressure to make expedient. They are transparent and genuine; they say what they mean and they walk the talk. They accept responsibility for their choices and would not blame others for their own mistakes. They do not steal credits from others. One of their greatest assets is their “reputational capital.” Others can always bank on their trustworthiness, because they serve as symbols of morality and ethics.


This list of exceptional qualities suggests that great leaders are made rather than born. A hunger for learning, good work ethics, character strengths, and people skills can all be cultivated. Natural born abilities play an important role, but most of the elements of greatness are acquired, often through trials and tribulations.

To be a great leader one needs first to become a positive person of sterling qualities. When it comes to leadership, character counts more than competence, and what you are matters more than what you do. A great leader is not just someone with great abilities, but someone who has a positive impact on a great number of people. In the final analysis, it is not your personal resume but your legacy that determines your greatness.

Now, apply these twelve criteria to the current presidential candidates—with ten as the perfect score for each leadership characteristic and zero as the lowest score. Who will come out best on these leadership measures? Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama? Rudy Giuliani or John McCain?

More importantly, measure your own leadership as a parent, a teacher, or a leader in your church or organization. What is your strongest quality? What is your weakest link? What areas offer the best hope for improvement?

It is never easy to be a leader, but someone has to do the leading in most situations. This world will become a better place when more people aspire to acquire the characteristics of great leaders.


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