A Report of "Leadership in Crisis and Calm"
A Lecture by Roger Porter of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University
Sponsored by the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University
February 15, 2012
“We look to leaders to make decisions, solve problems, provide direction, organize and inspire the activities of others, and much more,” says Roger Porter. “So what is it that differentiates those leaders whom we consider great?” He then commenced an explication of those qualities of great leaders. First, he says, “Great leaders have a vision that guides their decisions.” There are two basic models of running an organization: Leaders may take a problem-solving approach or a goal-oriented approach. In the latter, the model preferred by great leaders, “the view . . . is longer and animated by a specific goal or goals, rather than simply doing the right thing to address the problems with which one is faced.”
However, says Porter, though this advice is easy to articulate and understand, it is difficult to follow. Thomas Jefferson observed in a letter to Edward Carrington, “‘I have ever viewed the executive details as the great cause of evil to us, because they in fact place us as if we had no federal head by diverting the attention of that head from great to small objects.’” Jimmy Carter and his administration, for instance, struggled with too many well-intended projects, whereas Ronald Reagan’s focus on a limited number of objectives proved considerably more effective. As Porter explains, “Great leaders concentrate on the important and eschew the less important.”
“A related characteristic of great leaders is the importance they attach to long-term and short-term considerations,” says Porter. They are more concerned with investing in the future than in immediate gratification, and they value dynamism, change, and innovation over security and stability. Gerald Ford, despite taking office amidst the Nixon political scandal, the unpopular Vietnam War, and oil inflation, established long-term goals to heal the nation from its mistrust of the government and to set the economy on a pattern of sustained growth. In pardoning Nixon, “he recognized the personal political damage that he would suffer. But political expediency was never his guide,” says Porter. Ford’s presidential decisions were effective because they were driven by his overarching goals.
“Great leaders build a foundation of support that sustains the policies they put in place,” says Porter. Those who implement the policy must understand it and be committed to it. It was by informing an assembly of economists of the nature of the situation that Ford achieved the consensus necessary to implement economic deregulation. Porter then describes another president who overcame odds to achieve a similar outcome. “George H. W. Bush entered office facing larger opposition majorities than any elected president in United States history,” he says. His Clean Air Act passed the Senate and House by huge margins because of its innovative approach which appealed to environmentalists and business leaders.
Another characteristic of great leaders, according to Porter, is teaching reality. “They warn of dangers in a manner that does not offer false hope but instead clarifies the challenges ahead.” In addition, the choices of solutions they offer are grounded in reality. Winston Churchill made no promises when he became Prime Minister at the start of the Second World War, “for he knew he had none to make,” says Porter.
“No American leader has taught reality with attention to the moral consequences of our national life more clearly than did Abraham Lincoln,” Porter states. In his second inaugural address, he did not draw attention to himself or the accomplishments of his presidency. Instead, he clarified blame for the Civil War without asserting superiority or passing judgment. He did not draw attention to himself or the accomplishments of his presidency. Instead, he clarified blame for the conflict without asserting superiority or passing judgment. He acknowledged the hand of God in man’s affairs. Finally, Lincoln stated that “We must turn our eyes forward . . . with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”
“Where did Lincoln get his wisdom and his leadership?” Porter asks. Despite a troubled relationship with his father and an early life marked by poverty, Lincoln chose not to embrace the culture around him. “In a society of hunters, Lincoln did not hunt. Where many males shot rifles, Lincoln did not shoot. Among many who were cruel to animals, Lincoln was kind.” Despite the pervasive nature of tobacco use, profanity, fighting, gambling, and drinking, Lincoln did not participate. He resisted and opposed slavery as well as hostility to Indians. “This inner strength would inspire others to follow him,” says Porter.
In sum, Porter concludes, great leaders advance a vision that guides their actions, focusing on a few objectives and giving priority to the long-term. They create policies based on a foundation of support, and they teach reality. In addition, their leadership is founded in life experience. “For great leaders, it is not only about what they do but who they are.”