The Attributes of Leadership

The Hon. Lee H. Hamilton
Crane's Executive Education Program
NSWC Crane
Mar 27 2006

 Leadership fascinates us.


You and I often hear the cry for leadership. The question is: Where are the Lincolns, the FDRs, the Thomas Jeffersons? Where are the heroes?

In a day when fame and celebrity are rampant, leadership seems to be in short supply — not just in politics, but in many other walks of life as well.

We want strong, decisive, moral leaders. We want leaders to rescue us from our problems.

There are of course many kinds of leaders. There is the eloquent old warrior, Winston Churchill; the visionary, Mahatma Gandhi; the man whose judgment inspired trust, General George Marshall; the revolutionary, Lenin; the flamboyant strategist and administrator, Douglas MacArthur; the woman whose compassion and service to the poor inspired the whole world, Mother Teresa; the civil rights leader calling his countrymen to justice, Martin Luther King; the coalition builder, Dwight Eisenhower; the passionate advocate of conservatism, Margaret Thatcher; the slashing military commander, General Montgomery (of whom it was said in defeat he was indomitable, in victory insufferable).

There is the age–old argument about whether leaders make history or history makes leaders. Carlyle puts the emphasis on the leader; Karl Marx emphasized the historical forces.

I suspect most of us would agree that historical forces create circumstances in which leaders emerge, but that leaders clearly can have an impact upon history.

It may be, as some suggest, that tumult, revolution, chaos, crisis, and war are needed to produce great leaders. One of the ancient wise men said: Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.

Others suggest that focus and concentration is what it takes, and that people today are simply faced with too many distractions.

In any event, leadership is a popular topic. It really does intrigue us. There are more than 900 leadership studies programs at America's colleges and universities scattered across all disciplines: political science, history, science, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, and on and on.

Attributes of leadership

What is leadership anyway? It is a process of persuasion by which a leader induces others to pursue his or her objectives.

Leaders make things happen — things that otherwise would not happen.

It is not status, although the leader does have status. It is not just power, or propaganda, or manipulation, or coercion, or pandering. It is not even official authority (the meter maid has authority but would not be considered a leader), or management. Leadership is something more than keeping the accounts straight and directing people.

Some people say it has become virtually impossible to lead today because our country is so diverse and contains so many contending interests. I do not agree with that view, but I often ask myself: What are the attributes of the leader?

No single characteristic guarantees leadership. It's simply too complex a phenomenon.

You and I have a long list of the leader's requisites. Let me mention some of the attributes I consider most important:

1. Energy: One attribute may surprise you: plain old physical vitality.

Top leaders have extraordinary stamina and great reserves of energy.

I once spent an exhausting 18–hour day with President Clinton. We had meetings all day long in Santiago, Chile, and then returned to Washington on an overnight flight. By the time I got on the plane I was ready for sleep. But Clinton was still raring to go, walking the aisle looking for people to talk to and play cards with all through the night.

One study I recall said sheer animal energy was the most important single attribute of a leader. The blunt fact is that leadership requires more energy and effort than most people have.

2. Vision: Leaders have bold vision and aim to achieve great things.

They lift us out of our daily preoccupations, and unite and mobilize us in pursuit of our goals. They stake out a position ahead of where people are, and convince people to pursue that position. As the proverb says — Where there is no vision, people perish.

John F. Kennedy said we will put a man on the moon within the decade, and we did.

FDR said we will build 50,000 airplanes in a year during World War II, and we did.

Clara Barton saw that the soldiers in America's civil war needed better care. Her work organized care for thousands of Union soldiers, and led to the creation of the Red Cross.

Thomas Jefferson was an impassioned believer in the American way, a confident spokesman for the American creed, and the preeminent visionary of American liberty.

Martin Luther King Jr. articulated and advanced a powerful vision of America overcoming its racial division and discord, and becoming a more equal and united nation.

But vision must be combined with pragmatism and flexibility. Leaders must sometimes be ruthless in the course of reaching their goals, but also have a sense of what can and cannot be achieved.

3. Self–confidence: Leaders have confidence that they can make a difference.

Leaders know they are not powerless. They are not fatalists. They believe they can bring about a good result in any situation.

I once watched a little league baseball game. After the visiting team scored 10 runs in the first inning, I spoke to the star shortstop of the home team. He said to me, “We can still get these guys. I know it!” He thought — even then — that he could make a difference.

A good leader has the confidence to take whatever action is needed to achieve whatever task is at hand.

Winston Churchill's father was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was once shown a balance sheet filled with numbers. He waved a finger at the decimal points and said, “I could never make out what those damned dots meant.”

Obviously he did not have the confidence of a leader.

Choosing his cabinet from his “team of rivals” — to use Doris Kearns Goodwin's phrase — Lincoln said: “I have looked the party over and concluded that these are the strongest men. Then I had no right to deprive the country of their service.” That took self-confidence!

I remember one leader saying to me, “I'd be a pessimist, but it would never work.”

It was said of FDR that he had a sharp sense of his personal power, a source of where it came from and what its limits were, and a hunger and love for power, and a certain sense of his own competence to use it.

4. Takes responsibility: A leader has to be willing to take responsibility.

He or she has to take the initiative, to take responsibility for errors and move on, to step forward when nobody else will. He or she is driven to make a difference.

In basketball, they call him the “go to guy” — the player who wants the ball in his hands when the game is on the line.

I once visited with the former President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. I asked him when he first realized that he had the attributes of leadership. He said as early as he could remember, whenever he would enter a group — even when he was in the first and second grade — he wanted to be the leader. He had something in him that pushed him to accept responsibility — and to lead.

To be a leader, you have to be a take charge kind of person.

Someone once said that President Teddy Roosevelt — perhaps the most assertive leader in our history — was second only to Niagara Falls as an American phenomenon.

5. Judgment: A leader must have good judgment — more than just intelligence.

You and I have known some very bright people whose judgment is not very good. A comedian once said he didn't know of anything worse than a stupid person with a brilliant mind.

We want leaders who think things through carefully before they go off half–cocked.

Leaders seldom have all the facts they need to make a judgment. They have to be able to combine hard data, uncertain data, and intuitive guesses in order to make decisions.

One of my favorite leaders is James Madison. He stood five feet four inches tall and weighed about 100 pounds. He was sickly most of his life, socially inept, and a poor orator. He certainly did not have a commanding presence. I doubt very much that he could get elected to Congress today.

Yet he was probably the most important contributor to the design of our political system. He had superb judgment about people, events and ideas. He understood his colleagues, knew the temper of his times, and was able to translate his ideals into a system that would work.

6. Decisive: A leader has to be able to decide — to set priorities, formulate goals and establish a course of action.

It is written in I Corinthians: If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? Well, a leader must sound a certain trumpet.

We have all encountered people — including ourselves, probably — who have difficulty making up their minds. We all have moments of indecision. But a leader is not afraid to make tough decisions. Sometimes he is wrong, but he is decisive.

DeGaulle once said: “One cannot govern with ‘buts’.”

Some of us still remember the penetrating analysis and cool decision making of JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A leader often has a kind of uncanny knack of knowing when to go for it — when to charge, when to compromise, when to retreat. A leader knows when to be persistent in pursuit of a goal — good leaders are not quitters, and they are not easily discouraged, though they do know when to change course.

7. Motivator: Leaders have to be able to motivate people, to teach them to believe in themselves.

Once I heard a leader described this way: “He made us realize how good we are.” I cannot imagine a better compliment for a leader — or a better description of one. This capacity to motivate others is at the very heart of leadership.

Leadership is the capacity to energize and motivate others in the pursuit of shared goals. When the leader's work is done, he or she wants their followers to say — “we did this ourselves.”

In the words of Woodrow Wilson, the leader lifts people out of their everyday selves, to their better selves.

The leader's goal is to leave a legacy for those who follow. He or she wants to create the conditions under which their followers can realize the goals they seek.

Winston Churchill was famous for rehearsing impromptu speeches. One day he was taking a bath and his valet heard his voice booming out from the bathroom. The valet wanted to know if there was anything he could do. Churchill said, “I was not speaking to you, Norman, I was addressing the House of Commons.” Sir Winston knew that to motivate his countrymen he had to practice — even in the bathtub.

A good leader gives his followers hope. Jesse Jackson concludes many of his speeches with the phrase, “Keep hope alive.” A leader does have to keep the hopes of his followers alive — and that is not always easy to do.

Susan B. Anthony worked tirelessly for a women's right to vote. Addressing her final convention on women's suffrage — her health failing — she exhorted her audience by saying: “Failure is impossible.”

The renowned football coach Vince Lombardi said, “We never lose, but sometimes the clock runs out on us.” Even in defeat, he could keep the hopes of his team alive.

8. People skills: A leader needs to have good people skills.

He or she must be able to work with all kinds of people — different ethnic groups, religious groups, smart people, dumb people, tall ones, short ones, nice people, and not so nice people. A leader is often able to get along well with everyone.

A leader must have the ability to appraise people accurately, sometimes quickly — to judge their skills, their readiness to follow, or their resistance to following. He or she has to be quick to discern when there is dissension or confusion in the group, and must be sensitive to the concerns of others.

President Clinton is as good at this as anyone I've encountered. In a flash he will sense the mood of a person — or a group — and respond to it appropriately.

All of us who have hired other people have had the experience of thinking we had hired a good employee — a person who fit the job requirements — and learned later that the employee's people skills were very poor, even non–existent.

I hired a person once whom I thought was going to be terrific, but he turned out to be ungracious, impolite, and often involved in altercations with other people on the staff. I learned that my judgment about other people is not infallible.

9. Actor: I have often thought that a good leader must possess an actor's abilities.

The leader must be an actor, and play the part convincingly. We think, of course, of Ronald Reagan, who was an actor. But I've seen leaders acting in many situations — acting pleased to receive the unwanted suggestions or attention of constituents, pretending to enjoy cooperating with despised allies in pursuit of common objectives, waxing indignant at a chosen political target when not really upset at all, charming a group at yet another reception while really waiting to go home to bed.

Maybe that is why many of our presidents have enjoyed theatre. And, of course, many successful politicians I have known were — like any actor — superb story-tellers.

And more than one leader has defused a tense or awkward situation with a touch of humor.

10. Relationship with followers: We sometimes forget that the first, all–encompassing need for a leader is to have followers.

Have you ever heard of a call to train followers? But most of us, most of the time, are followers, and followers are necessary. A leader must have a good relationship with their followers — one that is based on trust.

In American history, George Washington may be the best example of this. He was a gifted leader, but he did not dazzle an audience with his oratory. He said his only ambition was to perform his duties. In performing them, he shaped our national character. His leadership stemmed from the fact that people trusted him, and were prepared to follow him.

The leader has to believe in his followers; and the followers have to believe in their leader. I remember a constituent who once said about an elected official, “He is too swift for me.” That was a polite way for the constituent to say he did not trust him.

A good leader has a profound sympathy for those he leads. As another constituent put it to me, “I want a leader who is one of us.”

The best leaders, it has been observed, often follow an agenda set by their followers. FDR warned his colleagues: “If we do not have the courage to lead the American people where they want to go, someone else will.” Historians often comment on FDR's subservience to public opinion.

The leader must have an intuitive grasp of the needs and moods of his followers. Have you ever watched a good coach? A good coach understands very well how hard he can push or criticize his players. University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant said he knew his players better than they knew themselves. That's what enabled him, he said, to bring out the best in them.

The leader must learn from his followers. Indeed, leadership begins by listening. Good leaders appreciate and are sensitive to the views of others. A good leader must keep looking behind to see if their followers are still there. And he or she must not forget how much can be accomplished if others get the credit.

We do not want a leader who dictates to his followers. A good leader knows what he or she wants, but also knows he or she must not impose it. The leader is not always the shaper or teacher. Often he is shaped by his followers, and is their student. As one French revolutionary put it: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”

We are all leaders in some segments of our lives and followers in other parts of our lives.

Woodrow Wilson put it this way: “The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people.”

A leader must not be so far ahead as to lose his followers and not so much of the crowd as to forget that his business is to lead. Lincoln said once that the art of leadership in a democratic society is to be out in front of the people — but not too far.

The leader must know when followers want to be consulted; when they accept and when they reject the leader's authority; when they want debate and dialogue; and when they are prepared to close ranks.

The leader must be highly supportive of their followers at times, and at other times authoritative. Always there must be good two–way communication between leader and follower.

Perhaps the ultimate test and legacy of a leader is the people he or she leaves behind to carry on. To paraphrase Walter Lippman: a good leader leaves behind other men and women of conviction with the will to go forward.

11. Moral leadership: A leader, finally, should be a moral, or ethical, leader.

Not all leadership is moral. Many leaders are effective, but not good.

One theory of leadership is that leadership equals power plus morality — the difference between Martin Luther King Jr. and Adolf Hitler is morality. Most of us would argue, I think, that leaders should lead from positive core values and be influenced by an internal moral compass.

Hitler was an effective leader. He built the autobahns, made the trains run on time, and made many Germans feel good about themselves. Stalin was an effective leader. He largely eliminated his opposition and perpetuated his rule for over two decades.

But these leaders were not moral or ethical. They saw power as an end in itself, took advantage of the weaknesses of others, exploited the dark side of human nature, and were directly responsible for the murder of millions of people. They are among the worst leaders in history.

Leaders have power but power itself is morally and ethically neutral. It can be used for good purposes or bad. Many of the great leaders in history — Lincoln, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. — used their power for morally laudable ends.

What are the qualities of moral, or ethical, leadership?

Let me mention a few of them:

  • Moral leadership means being trustworthy and fulfilling one's commitments.
  • It means working for the common good.
  • It means living up to, promoting, and defending the laws, customs and values that animate our country.
  • It means appreciating the many and various views held by the people of this country.
  • It means bringing people together.
  • It means seeking to improve the lot of all Americans.
  • It means enhancing the dignity of the individual, empowering the individual, and enabling the individual to fulfill his or her potential.

Lincoln, who embodied these qualities as well as any leader in our history, kept the nation together in its hour of greatest danger — doing so with masterful statements of healing and compassion, always articulated with extraordinary humility.

The talent and energy and virtue of our people are the great assets of our society. Our Founding Fathers understood that not only must leaders be virtuous, but so must the people.

Surely the values of our people shape our leaders. They express the values that hold our country together. Good leaders uncover, and energize, that talent and energy and virtue. Above all, they enable the people around them to grow. That is a key ingredient of moral leadership.

A moral leader works to meet the needs of the people, strengthens their families, advances justice and peace, helps provide opportunity for every citizen, promotes a broad sense of responsibility and community across the nation, and strives to accommodate different points of view and develop consensus.


I've been talking about many attributes of leadership. The ideal leader would have all of them simultaneously. Obviously, no leader possesses all of them.

You and I demand much of our leaders. We want a leader to set goals, affirm our values, and energize and motivate us. We want a leader to plan, organize, and manage. We want a leader to inspire trust, explain and teach. We want a leader to be a symbol of unity and resolve. We want a leader to have a tough–minded optimism.

We want leaders to represent us with dignity and honor to outsiders. We want a leader to foster a continual process of renewal, bringing young people on board. And, of course, we want a leader to act morally and advance the common good.

We make all these demands on the leader even when we know he is often under great time pressure, must deal with a great number and variety of people and issues, must make decisions when information is incomplete, must interweave continuity and change, and must deal with turf problems and try to keep people together.

We get upset if a leader makes mistakes or arouses hostility.

In short, we demand the impossible of our leaders. Even so, we need our heroes, imperfect though they may be.

At the end of the day, it seems to me, what we really want and need is a leader who believes in us, lifts us up, gives us hope, helps us understand, and shares the confidence of Woodrow Wilson, who said, “I believe in democracy because it releases the energy of every human being.”