Great leaders

Key attributes

What makes a good leader?

There are several key factors that distinguishes a good leader from someone who isn’t. These include being:

  1. A good listener.
  2. A good talker.
  3. A good thinker.
  4. An ability to solve problems.
  5. A great visionary.

Yet there are some leaders in history who have gone above and beyond these essential factors. And one of the key additional factors is knowing when to apply one’s emotions. Yes, this may seem bizarre on the face of things since you always hear from other people how decision-making should be done without emotions. “Surely,” as they say, “the emotions would only cloud one’s judgment and will only lead to poor decisions.”

Not necessarily so. (1)

It is true, good decisions do require a temporary suspension of any emotions, but this should occur during the brain-storming session of uncovering all possible solutions.

Prior to this, a truly great leader must always engage his/her emotions in order to apply what we call “empathy”. In a nutshell, you need to feel what others are going through when a problem arises. It is more than just seeing a problem, and that's it. You have to use your mind and your emotions to imagine the experience of others and have some inkling of what it would feel like to be in that situation. Better still, a great leader should actually experience it firsthand of what it is like to be in the situation other people are going through, if it is safe to do so (and if it isn’t safe, then clearly the leader can see there is a problem). The emotions are there to help the leader to see where any negative experiences are likely to be coming from, and this can provide further input into the nature and cause of the problem.

The next step in the decision-making process is for the emotions to be kept to one side as the leader searches for all possible solutions, from the familiar to the most creative (hence you need a balance in L- and R-brain skills).

Now comes the time to select the solution, or set of solutions, that appear to best solve the problem at hand. When choosing, not only is there a strong practical and rational element of seeing whether the solutions will actually solve the problem, but also an emotional aspect too. Because the aim here is for the solution(s) to provide a positive emotional response in the people who will ultimately implement the solution(s). That is how you ensure the final chosen solution (whether selected by the people or the leader — ideally it should be the former) will be implemented to achieve a permanent outcome.

The whole aim is not just to solve the problem, but you want to make sure the people are happiest in the solution they will implement.

Finally, people can be like children in that they might be afraid to implement the solution. It is perhaps to do with change, and change may equate to uncertainty. People prefer to follow someone else if they can see it being done by that person. Therefore, a great leader must implement the solution. Don’t wait for others. Sometimes a good leader must set a blazing trail and lead by example, to show the confidence from the leader of how the solution will work. Then everyone else who sees it will follow (a positive application of herding mentality when there is hope and a future for all).

To give as an example, it is like the solution on a computer of whether to use MS-DOS or the point-and-click mouse concept. MS-DOS is definitely one solution to the problem of accessing your files, opening them, moving files around, and so on. Based on typing a bunch of commands on the screen, MS-DOS never really generated the necessary level of positive emotional response in everyone, especially among the average person on the street (if they had to use a computer). But as soon as the mouse solution was implemented, it is amazing how many people, even those who never thought using a computer would be possible, can actually understand and even, to a certain extent, enjoy using a computer, well at least for the simple task of organising files. Certainly it would be hard to imagine Microsoft could have stayed in business if it kept to MS-DOS right to this very day.

Therefore, always apply emotions to decision-making at the right times. Because in the end, people are the ones who will make the solution a reality. And since people have emotions, it is best to make sure that they are happiest in implementing the solution. If they are not, you can expect further problems to arise. And that will only mean another round of problem solving to find another solution. Might as well do the job properly now by engaging all aspects, including emotions, as needed to make the best decision today.

Ideally, the best leaders are those who are well-balanced thinkers and communicators who are able to apply emotions at the right times.

But I don’t see this in real life today?

We can see where you are coming from. It is so easy to observe on television and in real-life examples of so-called “leaders” in the business world, in politics, and even among ordinary citizens, who think that every decision should be completely devoid of emotions at every stage, and for people to have to live with the outcome (and if not, then social chaos can emerge).

This is particularly true in war times because people get killed and so the decision has to be done in a way where the emotions are kept to its absolute minimum. There might be no emotions when it comes to the feelings of the enemy, but good military leaders who become generals do understand the emotions do play a part when it comes to deciding which decision will minimize the loss of life to one’s own nation over the long-term and hopefully to end wars.

To give as an example, we know former U.S. President Harry S. Truman had to decide on whether to drop the newly-developed atomic bomb on Japan towards the end of World War II. We know from history that he did. Knowing the lives that would be lost, it is very easy to say he was a psychopathic leader with no emotions when he made the decision. Yet on another perspective, we know Truman did apply some emotions to the problem.

We know that only the greatest leaders would have the capacity to apply their emotions to even their enemies and realize war is a waste of time. These exceptional leaders will always see everyone as the same people searching for the same solutions. We are all seeking the same kind of love no matter who we are. So everything will have solutions, and peaceful ones at those. There is no need for anyone to get killed to find the solutions.

In the case of former U.S. President Harry S. Truman, he may not have gone quite that far. In hinsight, it probably would have been better if he gave the Japanese leaders involved in the conflict an opportunity to re-think their war strategies in the Pacific by letting them know the Americans do have a new technology that can cause enormous devastation to the Japanese people. The Japanese leaders may or may not believe it. This may be the biggest issue. However, if the leaders in Japan had any quality about them in terms of their visualization skills to imagine the likely consequences and have applied their emotions at the right times in their decision-making process to see that it could be a possibility, then the number of untold lives that could be lost in whatever technology the American had could have been easily avoided. In which case, the outcome of how the war with Japan could have been radically different. Unfortunately, the president had enough information at hand to suggest to him that the Japanese leaders had no intention of stopping their actions. Was this an indication of the quality of the leaders in Japan in not being able to apply their emotions to the problems on behalf of the people of the nation? Whatever the reason why certain leaders could not see through the problems clearly enough, it seems the president had to make a decision. The sad thing about war is the reality that some lives do have to be lost, and if it means dropping an atomic bomb on Japan to potentially end the war, then it may be the only way to put some sense into the Japanese leaders at the time. When it come to applying emotions to the decision by Truman, it was probably more a case of how many more Americans and their allies would get killed if the war were to drag on. Well, as history tells us, the war did finally end. Unfortunately it took the Japanese leaders two of their own cities to be destroyed — Nagasaki and Hiroshima — and the deaths of more than 100,000 people to finally change their minds. Of course, no one should think that killing is okay. It is clearly not okay. Great leaders always knows this because there are always solutions that don't require people to be killed. However, in times of war, who knows how many more people would get killed if the war kept on going for some time afterwards. Something had to wake up the leaders in Japan during the war to make them re-think what they were doing. And if it takes such destructive power as the atomic bomb to change people's thinking, then so be it. In Japan’s situation, it required two atomic bombs for the leaders to make the decision to end the war. If the leaders had empathy, the decision to end the war would have been made much earlier than this.

Despite the poor quality nature of leaders in the past, even by today's standards we see there are some politicians who do not appear to have learned the lessons of the past and who seem more interested in proving their dick is bigger than everyone else's (e.g., a classic example has to be North Korea and the US), which is the inevitable outcome when no emotions are applied. However, it takes real balls and a brain to apply emotions at the right times, and something that many world leaders should take heed of if they are going to solve world problems properly.

Apart from well-balanced leaders with true empathy, the only other way world problems will be solved is for people to be the solution. Indeed, the ideal aim is to get everyone to be their own leaders so they can solve the problems they are facing on-the-spot and in real-time. And the world must be prepared to help them if they need anything to make it work. The only time an assigned overarching leader for the people should ever come to the forefront is if the people themselves don’t know of a way to solve the problems themselves, but need a leader with balanced thinking skills and the emotions to search for a solution.

Should a leader emerge to perform this task for the people, a great leader should not only implement the solution, and teach everyone about it, but he/she must blend back into the background once again to let others who know what to do to lead the way, improve on things, and ensure the positive solution is achieved in the end.

That is what makes for an outstanding leader in the 21st century and beyond.