Five Traits of a Great Leader

I have been thinking and writing lately about leadership. I don’t usually write about this topic, in part because I think there is too much writing and perhaps too little of the actual doing of leadership. I also think leadership cannot be a topic about itself. Leaders lead a cause. Real leaders lead because of great ideas they care about deeply, not because they want to lead. Leadership must have content. Ultimately leadership is about making the world a better place.

But I just finished a marvelous book called Churchill by the acclaimed historian Paul Johnson. This is in part a book about Winston Churchill’s amazing life and the even more amazing times in which he lived. But it is also a book about Churchill as a leader, and that is what I want to share in this post.

There are five points, Johnson believes, that distinguish Churchill and his great success as a leader. See what you think about these traits from the life of this giant of a leader in the 20th century.

First,always aim high,” Johnson says of Churchill. This is the way Churchill lived his life, always reaching, always stretching, hugely ambitious but so often for the right reasons. He was always driven by big ideas.

Second,there is no substitute for hard work.” I too believe in working hard. Look around — do you know any effective leader who does not know how to work hard and at the same time to enjoy that work? But the amazing thing about Churchill is that he was able to keep some kind of balance in his life too: “The balance he maintained between flat-out work and creative and restorative leisure is worth study by anyone holding a top position,” says Johnson. Churchill smoked 12 cigars a day and drank 20,000 bottles of champagne in his lifetime. Indeed, he worked hard, but he was not always working.

Third, “and in its way most important, Churchill never allowed mistakes, disaster—personal or national—accidents, illnesses, unpopularity, and criticism to get him down. His powers of recuperation . . . were astounding.” This is very cool. This is a vital principle I am not sure I hold myself to all the time. Regroup. Move on. Carry yourself lightly. Don’t consider yourself too important. This is a good one.

Fourth,Churchill wasted an extraordinarily small amount of his time and emotional energy on the meannesses of life: recrimination, shifting blame onto others, malice, revenge seeking, dirty tricks, spreading rumors, harboring grudges, waging vendettas.” This seems so important and yet all leaders are tempted to indulge in the petty. This one says that we must regard others with respect and with charity. “There is nothing more draining and exhausting than hatred,” says Johnson. “And malice is bad for the judgment. Churchill loved to forgive and make up.”

Fifth,the absence of hatred left plenty of room for joy in Churchill’s life. . . . Joy was a frequent visitor to Churchill’s psyche, banishing boredom, despair, discomfort, and pain. He liked to share his joy, and give joy. It must never be forgotten that Churchill was happy with people.” Yes, the ability to live with joy and to share joy, that is the mark of any great leader. The need to work with people, to enjoy people, to love and support people. We are always so grateful when a leader can create a culture of joy so that the rest of us can do our work well.

Well, what do you think? I recommend this book about this amazing leader. But I recommend as well that we think hard on these leadership characteristics — whether we find ourselves in roles of leadership or whether we are in the business of educating the next generation of leaders.