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Virtues and Character Markings of Future Leaders

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At a recent gathering of business leader at an annual global forum organized by the Global Executive Learning Network, I was invited to give a talk on future leadership. Here is a distillation of the conversation that ensued:

When Paradox of Success was first released in 1994 I assumed we had learned our hubris lessons from the 80s. Wrong! We kept hiring and promoting self-inflated leaders and offering them wrong incentives. As we look ahead from the 2008 economics wreckage that resulted, we must ask what kind of future leaders must we produce to set us right.

Certain character traits and drives will distinguish those who we need for future leaders. Formal education and "fattened resumes" will be less important than finding and developing the well rounded person who thrives on building robust learning cultures with high performing creative teams. A recent example is Pixar. Steve Jobs and the founding leadership team didn't come out of the movie industry. In fact Jobs bought the "graphics company" from George Lucas. He then helped assemble a "learning team" of creative people who changes the world of animation.

Here are some of the critical virtues and character markings of future leaders:

Well Balanced and Ethically - Centered
Using Jung's Typology future leaders must have well developed weaker functions. If they are natural extroverts they must work to develop their introverted side. And the same with other functions including male-female.

Through their inner learning work they will become familiar with their own tendencies that could lead to self-inflation and shoddy behaviors and practices. They must learn their own vulnerabilities and find means to check themselves and to engage in healing practices.

Winston Churchill fought a depression so severe he called it his "black dog". He fought it with creative practices like painting. He learned how to rebalance a psyche that was dangerously out of line.

To be ethically-centered requires deep self-knowledge, constant awareness of the dark side of our personalities. It also helps to have people around us who will help us stay humble. Without self-awareness behaviors will stray. Rules matter, but behavior around the rules is more important. Read Enron's mission and value statement. It was a model of high purpose. The behaviors didn't match.

Passionate Learners
Future leaders will find work satisfaction expressed in learning contracts. The opportunity to grow whole new aspects of their lives will be a large part of the work motivation of such leaders. Their success will not be measured merely by dollar signs and "comp" package grandeur. They will be measured by the excitement of their learning and growth.

Learning leaders will eschew power-point thinking, silly clichés, fads, gurus, and thumb-driven games. They will read widely, use social nets wisely. They will help fill the organization with learning-motivated people with diverse interests and backgrounds. The richness of learning contracts will be reflective of the organization's cultural richness and competitive advantages.

C. West Churchman, founder of Operations Research and a distinguished philosopher, once told me that -- "Leadership is the art of a good conversation." Think about it, he was right. A good conversation involves careful listening, shared learning, reflecting, building consensus, motivating, resolving dilemmas for higher order solutions. These are the right traits of excellent future leaders not greed and self promotion.

Humility and Integrity
Good leaders are humble. They know that success brings a dark bag of hubris, ego inflation, power games. To fight these ever-present threats future leaders must continually offer and accept fresh learning challenges that are sufficiently stiff to guarantee some failure. It is in proper failure that higher order learning can flourish.

A good model of this type of leader is Sir James Black, Nobel Laureate in medicine. His lab is famous for forming action-learning teams that create discoveries like Tagamet and Beta blockers. He modestly described his leadership style, "I trust the teams to run themselves and the organization. That leaves me free to help them find really challenging problems that will lead to failures. So then I must help them to recover and go again."

Coaching and Mentoring
The best leaders are natural teachers and coaches like Sir James Black. They enjoy helping others learn and grow. They are also equipped to play the larger role of mentor, helping with those aspects beyond skills that involve character formation and wisdom. My studies of 140 great leaders revealed how they benefited from coaching and mentoring and provided the same advantages to others.

When I was at AT&T we discovered the system's greatest leadership developer. He was a quiet man from the Midwest with a modest job of plant second line foreman. Over his 30 years of service he had produced dozens of top-flight leaders within the system. We dispatched a team to discover his secrets.

Nothing in his manner of his behavior seemed to account for his success. Finally one of the social scientists asked what he did that grew so many leaders. After reflections he answered, "To keep them from getting full of themselves I give them work above their experience level. They often fail so I pick them up and dust them off and help a little." When asked about the advice he might give them he replied, "The only thing I tell them is that if they are an S.O.B. don't act differently because then you will be an S.O.B. and a hypocrite and that is twice as bad" - end of interview.

Brave and Discriminating
The very best of the future leaders will carve out fresh trails with new metrics of success, dynamic transparency, and error-embracing learning. They will enjoy the risks that lead to learning. They will be discriminating in their own learning journeys. Always striving to do the brave and right things under pressure. Always working to have a life in harmony.

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison learning about himself and contemplating the great wisdom of teachers like Mahatma Gandhi. Martin Luther King also prepared his leadership around Gandhi's ideas of non-violent protests blended with Christ and others. Such great leaders have little time for the latest fad and avoid time-wasting slogans of gimlet eyed gurus.

Go and learn wisely - Enjoy.

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