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The Real Stress Test: What Does Leadership Look Like?

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The eyes of the punditocracy are fixed on the banks and their performance under the Obama administration's stress tests -- and whether the tests to determine the banks' financial stability were tough enough. Meanwhile, the real story is, as usual, hiding in plain sight. We're watching America learn a new definition of leadership, one that, interestingly, finally gets us past the test of toughness.

For as long as I can remember, Americans have adopted a one-size fits all definition of leadership. Whether in politics or business, we wanted leaders who were tough enough to make the hard decisions. Sure, as vice president, Dick Cheney was a glowering, mean SOB -- but he was our glowering, mean SOB! His scowl was enough to keep the terrorists at bay. On Wall Street, Jimmy Cayne, Bear Stearns ex-CEO, and his ilk were famous -- or notorious -- for lacking any visible sign of weakness... or humanity. Leaders, real leaders, we thought, not only never let the other side see them sweat; they never admit a mistake, never acknowledge any doubt, and never, never apologize. Because, as George W. Bush famously demonstrated when asked the question during one of the presidential debates, real leaders never make a mistake.

All of this ancient lore of leadership explains why, during his election-year vetting, Barack Obama was constantly put under the leadership microscope. Tellingly, the question the press sought to answer for the voters wasn't whether Obama would make a good leader; it was whether he was tough enough to make a good leader. That definition of leadership having already been established, all that remained was to measure Candidate Obama against it.

The first 100+ days of the Obama administration have seen the same media fixation on toughness -- toughness with the Iranians, toughness with Wall Street, toughness with the automakers, toughness with the North Koreans, toughness with the Republicans. But while the old-style evaluators keep their eyes fixed firmly on toughness gold standard, something else, something much more important, is going on with the public. We're looking at a president with real leadership qualities -- and giving Obama very high marks.

Why? Because the real change we can believe in starts with a new definition of leadership -- what I call Rule #41: If you want to be a real leader, first get real about leadership. And real leadership isn't about toughness.

Real leadership starts with how real leaders are. They're both confident and modest. Just watching Obama at a press conference or a town hall meeting, you get the clear sense of a man who knows how good he is -- and also knows he has to check his ego at the door. He's comfortable in his own skin, which makes it easier for us to trust him. And he comes across as a good listener, the kind of leader who wants people around him to speak up and offer their best advice.

He's also a great example of the next criterion for the new kind of leadership: Real leaders focus on attracting and growing talent. The headline writers keep attacking Tim Geithner and Larry Summers for their connections to Wall Street and the past. But nobody can attack them -- or most of Obama's top-level picks -- for lacking talent. There are no horse association hacks running key federal agencies in the Obama Administration. In fact, this is an administration that not only does make mistakes, but also owns up to them, and quickly. That's now former White House Military Office director Louis Caldera, exiting promptly after the New York Air Force One fly-over fiasco.

How do real leaders act? They don't pretend to have all the answers -- but they do ask plenty of questions. They don't try to make all the decisions -- but they do focus on making sense. They let their talented team contribute, and after laying out a template of their agenda, they give their people room to fill in the details. They state their values clearly and articulate their metrics for keeping score. Most of all, they clearly explain how they see the world so other people can see the world that way, too. It's called talking sense to the American people -- and the more Obama does it, the worse the Republicans look.

Finally, real leaders leave a legacy. Unlike the tough titans of Wall Street and the tougher water-boarders of Washington, real leaders leave behind organizations with sound values and sustainable operations. They cultivate their organization's capabilities and nurture its talents. And when they do leave, they leave behind more people who are real leaders.

When it comes to leadership that delivers, there's no doubt that America will make it through the recession, and no doubt that we'll make it through the threats of terrorists. But what's really exciting is that we're starting to show that we'll make it through the brain-dead definition of leadership that is the toughest threat we face. And we'll emerge on the other side with a smart, new way to think about the kind of people we want at the top of our government and our companies. That's change we can all believe in.