Thoughts on Leadership

The term "leadership" takes many twists and turns. There are multiple meanings and, in my half century career, I have learned that those meanings are dependent on context and circumstances, what the cause is or is not and its enthusiasms, the interplay of individuals and the kind of chemistry that is generated, pro-activity versus reactivity, and timing. Leadership can come from more than one person, but historically leadership centers around an exceptional individual with drive and determination.

In the business and military communities, leaders of the pyramid usually focus on utilizing an executive style. This connotes designated individual(s) managing. These people give clear directions, such as good planning with strategic goals and timetables, a focus on concise execution, achieving desired outcomes by a time certain. It is, however, in fact "management." In government, corporate, and non-profit bureaucracies, the word "leadership" is frequently tossed around, with a heavy stress on titles and managing end results, but ultimately it is talent at the top that stands up and is visible in crises, thereby reaching favorable outcomes in unexpected situations that displays leadership.

For most, personal leadership is demonstrated each day so that something is accomplished in and outside our homes. This is survival leadership by children and adults. But there is more, which will be at work through the prime of life. I feel confident I could spend a few hours with a group of children at any age, even as young as five or eight years old and locate leaders. The same among high schoolers. The pattern is unusual alertness, a directional compass, often moral, to their actions, a competitive drive in their play, an exceptional energy level, a raw sense of self that separates the special few from the others, a charismatic persona that people will follow. This drive to deal with necessity is a personal instinct and orientation. It is decisiveness not only about the basic business of needs, but the ability to seize the moment, to decide ways and means to cross the proverbial finish line as well. It is a natural character trait based on survival, rather than ambition per se.

Inherent in the bigger meaning of leadership, however, is the fact that only a few possess the skill. And these special folks possess the skill for a limited period. I believe you can possess the biological and psychological ingredients and can train to perform as a leader, but only a few reach the level of record in historical narrative. Worthwhile historical biographies are too few. Looking back from the vantage point of my 72 years during which I had several exciting and difficult roles on the public service stage, including four CEO positions responsible for thousands of people and trying to repair the world, what a person achieves of significance can for the most part only happen once, perhaps a second time, but rarely. As James Agee wrote, "You can't go home again!"

We witness and experience leadership in a variety of particular situations that go beyond the traditional, always trying to improve the lot of others. Here I would like to stress three examples of fine, able people I have known from afar and known personally and one from my own experience.

1. I was a high school athlete in Cincinnati Ohio in the early and middle 1950s. I closely followed and cheered for several older high-powered athletes, one of whom was Jack Twyman, the star of the University of Cincinnati basketball team, 1952-1956. At six feet six inches tall, he was the top scorer, rebounder, and court leader. Twyman spent 11 seasons as a professional in the National Basketball Association, excelling in points scored. But Twyman left his mark on me and others, on the NBA, in the way he helped a contemporary budding basketball star, Maurice Stokes, who suffered a career-ending accident upon entering the NBA. Stokes hit his head on the hard court floor in the last game of his first season, had a brain seizure, slipped into a coma, and was left paralyzed for the rest of his life. Twyman assumed the role of Stokes' guardian, ensuring that he had medical insurance coverage. To ensure financial sufficiency, Twyman organized an annual exhibition game to raise money for the former star player's existence. This was leadership beyond the expected, beyond tradition, in the arena of caring for a fellow human, this was moral responsibility and leadership by example.

2. Recently an acquaintance of mine, Dick Wolf, died at 79. He spent his first career in the US government as a lawyer. When he moved to an up and coming residential area in Washington DC, he started his second career, as a local community organizer. My wife and I lived there as well. Over four decades, Dick actively improved our neighborhood through his activism for children and their parents, utilizing his legal skills in complicated issues of planning, land use, historical preservation, cajoling and pleading, sometimes browbeating, municipal and federal government officials to serve the people, to build up the quality of living, not tear it down. In describing his work as a community activist, he summed up his leadership: "You figure out what you need to do. You do your own research. You testify before the City Council, or you get yourself on various boards and commissions, help write reports. It's a do-it-yourself enterprise." This energetic, persistent person led in a volunteer position, he did not wait for others. At his memorial service, a fellow activist recalled a street encounter with Dick a day or two after he resigned from the U.S. government's space agency. He was unloading boxes from his car when, according to his colleague, Dick straightened up and said, with a grin and zest in his eyes, "Now I can be a full-time pain in the butt!" From our perspective on leadership here, he became a full-time change agent leader.

3. John "Jack" DeGioia is a humble and humorous educator. He is quiet and does not turn heads when he enters a room. He has not, until recently, made waves in his professional pursuit, which is president of one of America's most prominent citadels of higher education, Georgetown University. He is, however, currently involved in a tense, turbulent dispute that has commanded the nation's attention. Georgetown University is not only one of the top select liberal arts schools in the U.S., it is also a Catholic school. In trying to help the poor, Jack DeGioia is part of a debate taking place between the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy of bishops and the federal government, led by the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services. President Barak Obama has mandated that employers should provide contraception coverage, and the bishops have fiercely resisted. DeGioia has sided with the federal government, including asking HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic and author of the mandate, to speak on campus during the school's graduation, which Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the nation's capital's archbishop, opposed, calling DeGioia's invitation "shocking." In polarizing times, the definition of a good Catholic leader appears to be elusive, but Georgetown's leader speaks against formulas and for social justice.

4. One last example. I came to Prague in September 1997 to head Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The organization was badly in need of redefinition and restructuring, including new staffing. More important, its existence was on the line owing to a piece of legislation stating the end of this Cold War instrument would occur by midnight on December 31, 1999. Because of my many years of experience on Capitol Hill, I was hired to save RFE/RL from the ash can of history. Very conservative and very liberal Senators had joined hands to kill this "relic of the Cold War" three years earlier. I worked rapidly to put together a coalition of less radical solons to change the amendment. But I had to find a way to give the moderates in both houses of Congress a way to become modern-day stake holders. Rising security concerns about Iran and Iraq gave me the opportunity. New legislation was written authorizing the Radios to "go out of area," to start broadcasting as soon as possible in the Arabic and Farsi languages to the two countries being strangled by dictatorial governance and unfree media. Once this happened, the far left and right coalition fell apart, RFE/RL was no longer perceived as a past relic, but with "a continuing mission." My vision for the organization, substantive content, and timing of lobbying gave direction to the Alexander Pushkin poem, The Bronze Horseman. Pushkin asks, "Where do you gallop, proud steed? And where will you plant your hooves?" From this new life, I was able to provide long-term direction and commitment, to concentrate on changing RFE/RL in Prague from an anti-communist to a pro-democracy and Muslim population-oriented broadcaster in 28 languages, to focus on resolution of short-term problems such as going from an aging organization to one utilizing contemporary high technology, to build up human capital by bringing in people of excellence in all top positions, and infusing the work force of over 2,200 people in and around 22 countries with a new élan.

We act and lead to improve the lot of others.