There is an ancient Chinese proverb “may you live in interesting times.” Actually, I believe the saying is considered a curse. One thing is certain; we are living in interesting times. We are living in a time that requires great leaders. We need them in every walk of life. We need them at national levels guiding nations to achieve peace and prosperity. We need them in business guiding our national and local prosperity. We need them at local levels guiding our communities to remain vibrant and secure. We need them in schools guiding our children to become capable citizens of the world. We need them in homes to provide families with a strong, positive character. Becoming a great leader is a matter of choices made at critical times.
Over the past 30 plus years, I have had the tremendous opportunity to serve this Nation in a leadership role as a Marine Officer. Since retiring from the Marine Corps, I have gone on to serve in leadership roles as a Vice President of a major non-profit organization, CEO of a small for-profit company and partner in another.Today, I remain a student and practitioner of Leadership as the President and owner of my own consulting firm. Experience tells me that surviving “interesting times” takes leadership—Great Leadership to be exact.
Leaders are responsible for everything that their organization does or fails to do; this is the ultimate role of a leader. Leaders establish a clear and shared vision of the future. They create an environment where those they lead can challenge processes and take risks. They model excellence for those they lead.
In “interesting times” leaders are faced with critical choices. They can become Great Leaders, Devils, or just another Liar resulting from choices made.
Napoleon Hill in his book “Outwitting the Devil,” annotated by Sharon Lechter, noted “every great leader of the past, whose record I have examined, was beset by difficulties and met with temporary defeat before arriving.” The difficulties facing the leaders of his day ranged from the Great Depression to World War. The leaders shaped by those circumstances are all considered great today, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Dwight Eisenhower to name a few. They were faced with difficulties that were catholic in nature; difficulties that touched every level of society.
Jim Burke, the former CEO of Johnson and Johnson, Geoffrey Canada the President and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone and Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, are leaders who became great by not giving-in to their fears or popular pressure. These three leaders faced difficulties not as universal in nature as the previously mentioned, but none the less the difficulties were indeed great.
Jim Burke made the courageous decision in 1982 to pull the popular over the counter medication Tylenol capsules off the shelves as a consequence of a cyanide poisoning crisis. This act caused the loss of over $100 million for Johnson and Johnson. Jim Burke, in the face of difficult circumstances for his company, made the decision to live up to the company’s credo to maintain a higher duty to “mothers and all others who use our products.” Although pharmaceutical recalls continually happen throughout the industry, few have as great a customer loyalty base as Johnson and Johnson.
Geoffrey Canada comprehending the fate awaiting many of the children of Harlem resulting from substandard education embarked on, what the New York Times Magazine called “…one of the most ambitious social experiments of our time.” The project combines education, social and medical services. It starts from birth and follows children through college. Mr. Canada was recognized as one of America’s Best Leaders in 2005.
Margaret Thatcher was elected the first woman prime minister of the United Kingdom. She served in that capacity for three terms. She is credited with leading her country out of a recession, led a war in defense of the British Falkland Islands and played an instrumental role in bringing the Soviet Union to an end.
Each of these great leaders could just as easily have developed into devils. Devils are those that take counsel of their fears—fear of failure and fear of criticism. They take no action when action is needed. The former CEO of British Petroleum (BP), Tony Hayward, is arguably a poster child in this category of leadership. His failure to take immediate and decisive action, and insensitive behavior during the BP oil spill crisis led to his dismissal and a black eye for the organization.
Then there is the leader who is simply a liar. They lead by taking care of themselves first. Greed, covetousness, and envy are their guiding principles. The former leadership of Lehman Brothers is an infamous example of Liar Leadership. Their collective failure to act ethically helped trigger a financial collapse felt around the globe.
We are living in “interesting times.” The difficulties we, as leaders, face at every level from the world stage to our family dinner tables are difficult. The choices made will determine if we are the next Great Leaders, Devils or Liars. Which will you be?