What makes great leaders great? Is there a moment, an event, that you can point to and say “this is when they became great”, or “this is when they made history”, or even “this is when they became presidential”? Is there a catalyst, an event, where they stand up and lead? Meriwether Lewis was Thomas Jefferson’s secretary, William Clark was hanging out in a cabin in the southern Indiana territory (sorry, I HAVE to throw my heroes in the mix, I know they weren’t presidents), Lincoln was a no-named lawyer from Illinois, Benjamin Harrison played ostrich and stuck his head in the sand for the first two years of the civil war, Roosevelt was considered for the head of street cleaning in New York, and Eisenhower was a mid-level officer primarily known for being a good football coach. What happened? How did they end up in history books? Why are we (read “me”) still talking about them 50, 100, and 200 years later?
Over the last several years, I have studied all of the above to one degree or another. Two keys stand out for me: First, the ability to see things in a grander scale, let’s call that vision, though its more than that, as we will see. Second, the ability to engage with people at an individual level, while at the same time engaging with people en masse and to obtain buy-in.
Vision: Great leaders see things that others don’t see. They see order, where others see chaos. They see patterns and correlations where others see unrelated events. They are more comfortable with a blank slate, than with the status quo. Let’s use Roosevelt as an example (Hey! It IS the Roosevelt River after all!). Here is a man who struggled with the decision to enter public office as the head of the street cleaners in New York (hardly a presidential role), yet in a few short years he became, Chief of Police, then Governor, and then Assistant Secretary of the Navy (and eventually a Vice Presidential Candidate and, as we know through history, President of the United States).
The Navy Roosevelt inherited was not even a foreshadow of the elite force we know today. All of the Armed Services were still decimated from the Civil War just a few decades removed. Yet, instead of following the status quo, Roosevelt saw the opportunity as a blank slate. Instead of focusing inward on our own shores, Roosevelt saw the United States as a rising world power and the Navy as a key component of that rise. Roosevelt developed the Large Policy, policy that defined plans for a canal to allow traffic from the Atlantic to the Pacific, fueling stations scattered throughout the world for new battleships, and the relationships with foreign powers that would have to be built to support this grand strategy.
Yet with this grand strategy, this grand vision, Roosevelt would struggle against the, dare I say, the politics of the status quo. (Parenthetically, I wonder now if it was this struggle against the status quo that many leaders face had a hand in Meriwether Lewis’ untimely death, be it murder or suicide?) Roosevelt continually butted heads with those who wanted to protect the status quo, or who didn’t see the patterns that he saw. This leads us to the second key of a great leader…
Buy-in: That innate ability to engage with some people on a very personal, a very intimate level, to develop a team and have that team follow them anywhere, even to face death (oops, getting ahead of myself here), while at the same time, engaging the masses (if not the powers-at-be) all to achieve the vision, the grand strategy, the Large Policy.
Roosevelt’s America found itself at odds with Spain. Cuba would become the battleground. Roosevelt volunteered. He volunteered to help form the first United States Cavalry…a fighting force of volunteers known to history as the Rough Riders. Roosevelt helped to raise a regiment, not from soldiers and sailors, but from cowboys, ranchers, hunters, and gold miners…his friends from the Bad Lands in South Dakota. Friends that would come when he called, friends that would follow him any where, not because they believed in the Large Policy, or the grand vision, but because the believed in Roosevelt. (It is interesting to note, at the beginning of the conflict Roosevelt was a Lieutenant Colonel, Leonard Wood was appointed Colonel, yet the image of Roosevelt and the Rough Riders is emblazoned on history.)
As Roosevelt’s political career blossomed after the war, he was able to engage the populous. Through imagery (like the Rough Riders, the Teddy Bear, the “big stick”) he engaged with the common man. It enabled him to gain the presidency and it enabled him to implement parts of his Large Policy even against some very powerful political adversaries. Did they see the vision of Roosevelt? Did they see the correlations and trends? I seriously doubt it. Again, they believed in Roosevelt, believed he cared about them, believed he spoke for them.
Great leaders today have these same two traits: vision and the ability to achieve buy-in on a personal level and on a large scale. Where do you spend your time? Do you have a great vision, but struggle to achieve it?…look to achieve buy-in. Do you have a great team, but no place to lead them?…seek a vision, a strategy, a Large Policy. (Again, parenthetically, I believe that is what made Lewis and Clark successful. The names are inseparable in history. Why? Because Lewis had a vision and Clark had buy-in. Together they achieved the un-achievable.)
So is it a point in time? Is it a single event? Is it a catalyst that catapults some to greatness? No…it is having the vision and the buy-in so that the point in time, the single event, the catalyst is recognized for what it is (or created) and leveraged.
#RooseveltRiver is my year long exploration with Dan Miller of Historical Solutions into leadership using the backdrop of history and the life of Theodore Roosevelt. To read more in this series, select “Roosevelt River” from the Category drop down on the right.