Timeless Leadership: A Conversation with David McCullough

Over the summer I read this Harvard Business Review interview with historian David McCullough. I found it a refreshing and thought-provoking view on leadership shaped from great leaders in American history.
I’ve looked at many business books based on historical leaders and quite frankly find most of them somewhat superficial. They read to me more like the author started with a model of leadership then fit the action of a particular historical figure to illustrate the model. McCullough is first and foremost a historian: he extracts leadership qualities by a careful study of a leader’s action and outcomes. Thus he has presented to us in this interview not so much a model of leadership but a synthesized list of leadership attributes and behaviors that he calls “timeless leadership.” Here is a brief summary of the qualities McCullough has seen in the leaders that he has studied:
· Leadership is partly due to luck, chance, or the hand of God. He cites numerous instances that disaster was turned into victory not by careful plans and strategies but by the hand of fate.
· Great leaders spot talent and strategically utilize it to achieve success. Good leaders judge people as much as how they handle failure as how they handle success.
· Great leaders look after their men; they take care of them, take a genuine interest in them, are empathic and treat them well.
McCullough’s passionate about the need for us to study history, to learn about people’s actions and the cause and effect of those actions. He states: “History teaches us how to behave, what to do and what not to do in a variety of situations. History is the human story.” Business leaders today, many of them focused on metrics and measures, would do well to include the human side of the equation, the results of human endeavor, in their view of accomplishments.
McCullough closes the interview by reflecting on his optimism for our country long-term. He returns to those American qualities of hard work and strong ethics as the foundation for our success. I recommend that you read this article as an anecdote to the doom and gloom of the nightly news and bring his sense of optimism with you as we approach the fall of the year.
An interview with Bronwyn Fryer, Harvard Business Review senior editor (Reprint R0803B) http://hbr.org/2008/03/timeless-leadership/ar/1
Alice K. Waagen, PhD


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