The Effective Leader

After three years at Penn State and two in the PLA, how would you now define the traits of an effective leader?


After 2 years in the PLA and as a student in the Smeal College of Business, I find myself ripe with definitions and examples of “effective” leadership, but I would argue that we seldom see truly great leadership today, and I will tell you why.  Character traits, learned abilities, and knowledgebase will, no doubt, contribute to one’s success and failure as a manager, but great leadership has a lot more to do with the leader’s response to the world around him: how will he choose to relate to his peers, but more than anything, his willingness to accept responsibility for the state of the world today.

Great leadership is twofold: good management and heroic responsibility (the former being in my mind the greater of the two). Good management is the process of motivating others to become part of a collective in order to conquer something of consequence. We know this because, logically, if you choose to exert influence on another individual, it must be either for good or for bad (corruption) in one degree or another. If it is for good, then it only makes sense that the leader is driven to complete the task even more than the subject would be, and it is in his best interest to create subjects who share that drive too (because motivation will inevitably inspire efficiency). Now, we need only ask ourselves what it takes to cause someone else to conform to our own ideology and goals. I would argue that it takes two things: first, to convince them that the source (the leader) is rational and virtuous (because it would seem that human nature is prone to being inspired by heroism), and second, that the goal is in line with (of high importance within) the subject’s own value system. In my experience, achieving the second will always be made harder by the absence of the first. In order for teams to function properly, authority -whether higher or equal -needs to be respected, and yet this is one of the most difficult predicaments: authority must be respected, and yet if it is to be respected, it can never be demanded; it must always be earned. This summer I had the pleasure of getting to know some Air Force Academy cadets, who were always eager to share with me the anecdotes of the authority structure that they lived in. Being in the Air Force, they were charged to obey orders from senior Airmen, and although they were commanded to it, their submission was very often reluctant. The reason is this: although earned authority is completely valid, it will never inspire the same eagerness in men and women that heroism and selflessness will.  In management, this is called post-heroism: the willingness of a manager to work alongside his employees to achieve the goal, rather than just delegating the work. The effect is this: if your boss is working alongside you on your task, as well as performing his own managerial duties, you will never have cause to resent him for the work that he assigns to you, because you will have no doubt that at the very least, he is as committed as you are to completing the task.

So, in case I lost you there: good leadership is this: the willingness of the manager to come off of his pedestal and get his hands in the dirt too. This is effective on so many levels: first and foremost, to assure his subjects that his duty is not to be a dictator, but rather a facilitator, and secondly to understand the problem at hand from the bottom-up. If you think about it, in business, in government, rarely do the leaders fully understand what goes on at the bottom; but the best ones almost always do. Southwest Airlines is the only US airline that has consistently been profitable since 9/11. They did this because they understood the needs of their customers, and they were able to know those needs because of their unique organizational structure: no matter how high-level an executive you are at Southwest, you are required to work twice a year in as a check-in agent. This practice not only communicates to the lower-level employees that they are a vital part of the organization, but it gives the executives keen insight into which processes help customer service, and which ones hinder it.

But method is hardly even a fraction of what good leadership is. You could be the best manager in the world, but what will it matter if all that you do with it is find a way to sell more widgets? No; the good leader recognizes the corruption in society and decides that he won’t stand for it. It seems that in recent years mankind is losing its responsibility to the pursuit of justice and righteousness, and has traded it for the comfort of ignorance and apathy. I am convinced that the mark of the great leader today is his frustration with the status quo, and his courage to disrupt it. I may be at odds with you in my convictions, but I believe that our responsibility as citizens and humans extends beyond ourselves and what we can gain from our circumstances. The reality is that our world may be more tormented by oppression, slavery, violence, disease and poverty today than ever before, and after 3 years at Penn State, I have learned that it simply isn’t right to overlook violence, poverty and injustice, and that none of us are free of responsibility toward our neighbors -near or far. But complacency is the norm in our world today, and it is my conviction that no matter how much wealth you amass, or which office you hold, if you disregard your responsibility toward your fellow man -here and far away -then you may just as well be poor and without stature, because wealth and power will never be eternal.

Of course, you may disagree completely with my view on the things that matter -love, joy, peace, righteousness, and the things that don’t -wealth, stature, influence. But that rests in your view of existence, and whether absolute truth and morality exist. I have learned in my time here at Penn State that influencing others for the sake of personal gain is never constructive, but sadly I do believe that many today would respond apathetically to such a notion. And I think that that may be the difference: apathy or action -and the pursuit of the things that are just and the things that are right.

Ultimately, in the world as I have come to know it, a good leader is one who accepts his responsibility toward his fellow man, and seeks to gain nothing for himself from his position. He does not use his power to oppress other, but rather he seeks to set the captive free. He doesn’t limit his responsibility to his constituents or to his shareholders, but to the pursuit of justice, and sacrifices himself entirely for it. He speaks not of his actions, but he lets his actions speak of his character. This is the leader that the world actually needs. And it is a sad moment to realize that I may never be this man. For who of us is wise enough or disciplined enough or compassionate enough to care more about our fellow man than we do about ourselves? I hope that one day I will.


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