The Traits of Leadership: Let’s Call It Like It Is

“There are men, who, by their sympathetic attractions, carry nations with them, and lead the activity of the human race.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Power,” The Conduct of Life, 1860)

To command the respect of your subordinates, you must lead with self-awareness, honesty, authenticity, and humility. So say Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan in a new book called “Execution: the Discipline of Getting Things Done.

Bossidy and Charan advise staying true to your ideals, following your strengths, admitting your weaknesses, giving credit where credit is due, and staying humble.

Who could argue with that? I can.

It irks me to see this kind of politically correct advice. It sounds good, but it’s fundamentally misleading. I’m tempted to think it’s wishful thinking from people who don’t have any real business experience.

The first and foremost virtue of a leader is the willingness to lead. Great leaders almost always have that.

It would be nice to live in a world where the impulse to take charge was synonymous with the impulse to help and heal and share and save. But that isn’t the case on planet Earth. Here, we have all kinds of leaders — from Gandhi to Mussolini and including every sort of personality in between.

As much as we’d like to say that if you want to lead you must be nice, we are forced to point out that the one necessary qualification is something less lofty: the desire to be in charge and get things done — and the audacity to believe that you can do that better than  others.

Next to that, the ability to create and communicate a compelling vision is essential for leadership. Most authorities on leadership recognize this. You can be fairly limited in other intellectual qualities — but strong in audacity and the ability to communicate a  picture — and still be a successful leader. (Ronald Reagan proved that, didn’t he?)

What else? What are the other essential qualities of leadership? I’m not sure, but it seems pretty certain that whereas audacity and visualization are mandatory, honesty and authenticity are entirely optional. If you want to take over, train yourself to believe that you can and then communicate your vision to others. Do that and you’ll find yourself leading.

If you also want to be a good and decent person — to share your ideas and solicit the ideas of others, praise people for their hard work, encourage them to improve themselves, and be grateful for their help — you’ll be a nicer person to work with. But that will be up to you.