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Successful leadership - how would you know?

Boardrooms and business school classrooms are equally preoccupied with leadership, and success is often assumed to be about profit or ...

By Sir Andrew Likierman 01 March 2009

Boardrooms and business school classrooms are equally preoccupied with leadership, and success is often assumed to be about profit or Total Shareholder Return. It’s neither.
SuccessfulleadershiphowwouldyouknowFor leaders wanting to measure their own success, for those who appoint leaders to know what they are aiming at and for outsiders assessing the quality of leadership, Andrew Likierman shows how to do it.


Was Julius Caesar a successful leader? What about Ghenghis Khan? Simon Bolivar? Or Napoleon? Because we tend to think of these as military leaders, the answers look pretty straightforward. Each achieved major military successes. But then Napoleon was ultimately defeated – does that make him a failure? After all, he won a lot of battles before Waterloo, and his sweeping political and legal reforms have been the basis of French administrative life for nearly 200 years.

Now let’s move to the politicians. How do you feel about describing Bill Clinton as a successful leader? George W. Bush? Tony Blair? Vladimir Putin? This is altogether more difficult ground. Some of you will have already decided; those of you who have not made up your minds could argue that it is too early to say. The historic verdict on Bush and Blair will probably depend on what happens to Iraq over the next 20 years. Those better informed about Russia than I am can make up their own minds about Putin.

Moving next to business territory, with a few exceptions – say Bill Gates, Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines) and Jack Welch – leaders generally have to be dead to be considered successful. No problems with Henry Ford and Alfred P. Sloan then. But with current CEOs, successful leadership is work in progress. Judgements are particularly hazardous in mid-flight – Bear Stearns and Northern Rock were hailed as run by highly successful leaders before the credit crunch.

For those who want to check on their own leadership success, for those who appoint leaders and for outsiders (including analysts and competitors) assessing the quality of leadership, checklists of traits are not enough. Nor are comparisons with Welch, Gates or even Ghenghis Khan. What’s needed is to know the problems of measuring success and how to overcome them.

A number of preliminary steps are necessary to make sure that measurement is going to be robust.

Preliminary step 1: Agree what we’re measuring Do you, like Warren Bennis, feel that leadership is hard to define, but you know it when you see it? The trouble is that, if you do, there’s a danger of talking at cross-purposes about what makes leadership successful.

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