By J.F. McKenna
Brace yourself. As sure as summer follows spring, the call for leadership always follows the long train of crises. This time will be no different, as the nation surveys a bankrupt City of Detroit, a busted Veterans Administration, a limp economy, a dithering Congress, renegade bureaucrats, the Benghazi “mystery,” an unstable Eastern Europe and a tottering Middle East, a crippling health-care strategy, a worried and skeptical electorate, and so on. As a fellow who watched the Watergate era unfold before an incredulous America, I’ll bet my quite collectable 1978 press card on it. (Yeah, the one with the photo featuring the garish sport coat.)
As columnist George Will recently wrote, too many so-called leaders “have exaggerated government’s proper scope and actual competence, making the public perpetually disappointed and surly.” In turn, we citizens of this so-called constitutional republic have demanded the emergence of real leaders.
Can the demand be satisfied this time round?
To try to answer the question, I sought guidance from the fountainhead of managerial brilliance: the writings of the late Peter Drucker. In the pages of The Wall Street Journal nearly three decades ago, the father of modern management addressed “leadership as work.” Noting that the topic was “all the rage just now,” Drucker first disabused those Journal readers of the notion that leadership is the same as charisma.
Insisting next that performance is the essence of leadership, the business philosopher par excellence stressed the context of leadership, writing that it is “not by itself good or desirable. Leadership is a means. Leadership to what end is thus the crucial question.” To underscore his point, Drucker ticked off a few charismatic leaders who even today inspire malevolent actors on the world stage—Mao, Hitler, Stalin. Call him a name-dropper, if you will; but the good professor knew how to hammer home a point.
Most certainly, Drucker went on, leadership is grounded in “thinking through the organization’s mission, defining it, and establishing it, clearly and visibly. The leader sets goals, sets the priorities, and sets and maintains the standards.”
The leader “makes compromises, of course; indeed, effective leaders are painfully aware that they are not in control of the universe,” wrote Drucker, whose The Effective Executive remains a beloved business classic. “But before accepting a compromise, the effective leader has thought though what is right and desirable. The leader’s first task is to be the trumpet that sounds a clear note.”
To Drucker’s way of thinking, the true leader is the exceptional musician who knows how to create great music, but does not delude himself into thinking that he’s the whole band.
Further, Drucker argued that exceptional leaders—think those in the category of Lincoln or Churchill—understand “leadership as responsibility rather than as rank and privilege,” offering this illustration: “Effective leaders are rarely ‘permissive.’ But when things go wrong—and they always do—they do not blame others….Harry Truman’s folksy ‘The buck stops here’ is still as good a definition as any. ”
Maybe the most telling point for we the disillusioned to take from this Drucker tutorial is that “an effective leader knows that the ultimate task of leadership is to create human energies and human vision.” Better known in my old neighborhood as “all for one and one for all, all the time.”
Which gets me to thinking about a Druckeresque gentleman whom almost any American would like to invite back into a leadership role—if it were possible.
“I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content,” Ronald Reagan said in his 1989 farewell, the year after Peter Drucker’s op-ed appeared. “I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation—from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief….”
The next time you hear a discussion about leadership, keep Drucker’s and Reagan’s words in mind. The next time you’re inclined to say “Take me to our leaders,” check the mirror first.
J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a veteran business journalist and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. His online work also appears on the site Steinbeck Now. A native of Cleveland, he and his wife, Carol, now live in Pittsburgh with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .