Reflections on six ‘hidden realities’ of leadership

The Business Journal

By Nathan O. Hatch

Guest Column

The subject of leadership has never been more discussed and debated than now. The trials of high-profile business leaders who have run amuck; scandals in the church; debates about trial lawyers; the pension-fund devastations at Enron and Tyco — all have raised doubts about leadership in the professions.

And most Americans yearn for a new generation of political leaders who can rise above partisan debate to address pressing problems. In a real sense, leadership in our day is on trial.

What makes a great leader? What kind of leaders does our society want and need? Who are our heroes? I would like to offer some reflections on six “hidden realities” of leadership — six qualities of great leaders that are often overlooked.

Leaders are very different in personality and style

You simply cannot read by first appearance or early acquaintance the kind of leadership capacity that someone has.

In his book, “From Good to Great,” Jim Collins associates the best kind of leadership with men like Darwin Smith, the former chair of Kimberly Clark. Smith was a man who carried no air of self-importance. He found his favorite companionship among plumbers and electricians and spent his vacations rumbling around his Wisconsin farm in the cab of a backhoe. He never cultivated hero status or executive celebrity status. He did not dress fashionably, and he displayed a certain awkward shyness. But beneath his unassuming exterior, he had a fierce, even stoic, approach to life. He brought a ferocious resolve to rebuilding Kimberly Clark, and under his leadership, the company was immensely successful.


The most striking conclusion of Collins’ study is that the very best leaders are humble people. He challenges our image of leaders as swashbuckling personalities always impressing their will on others. Collins finds that the best leaders combine two characteristics: they are modest and humble, and they are willful and fearless. The humility expresses itself in that they are more passionate about building the organization than in advancing themselves. They are willing to share credit, to hire people better than themselves, and to admit mistakes.


The authority of most leaders relies on trust — and little else. The practice of leadership is not the same as the exercise of power. “True leadership only exists,” Collins has written, “if people follow when they have the freedom not to.”

Today, business leaders do not have the same concentration of executive authority that they once did. To retain talented workers, who have many options, their leadership must spring from trust and the voluntary assent of their employees.


Many leaders fail because their own visions and plans are so dominant in their thinking that they cannot stop to hear what is going on around them — the coded messages that staff tries to convey, the air of frustration among employees, the resignation of key employees in the organization. Employees properly expect their leaders to understand what they do and what most concerns them. Most are suspicious of snap judgments, however inspired.


The complexity and interdependence of today’s institutions demand leaders who can translate mission and purpose to diverse constituents, as well as translating the concerns of these constituents to each other. Leadership has to be exercised in ways that are true to partners, employees, clients, and the public. Leaders must see divergent points of view and nuance rather than every issue in black and white. And they must bring their organizations together by explaining the real concerns of one party to others who perceive the world differently.

Leaders are rare who actually hire people better than themselves

It’s surprising how often leaders who profess to search relentlessly for talent settle for hiring average performers. Perhaps they fear that a superior underling would lessen their own position. Or perhaps they are so dominant themselves that strong people are not attracted to work for them.

Emerging leaders do not want to be mere acolytes to the boss. They want real and expanding responsibilities. Great leaders have to be strong enough to fill the bus with great people, and humble enough to allow these people to have real influence in the organization.

All of these realities point to the reality that Max De Pree makes in his writing on leadership: To lead is more to serve than to be served. Great leaders assume more the mantle of responsibility than of privilege. They are capable of investing their energies in people and purposes far more noble than advancing themselves and their own interests.

Leadership is a moral enterprise and can never be separated from our own deepest motivations, ambitions, and commitments. We need leaders of great talent and ambition, to be sure, but also those who calibrate success by measures taking into account the common good.

Categories: Essays